RUGBY UNION: `Le Petit General' Cusiter charged with leading Scotland out of the doldrums

The Borders scrum-half has the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. David Llewellyn believes he has the kind of talent to provide deliverance
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The French have dubbed him Le Petit General, the Scots regard him as something of a rugby saviour, but according to Chris Cusiter himself he is a just a young scrum-half trying to learn his trade.

There is no doubt that while he can marshal and drive his forward pack like the best of generals, Cusiter is no Napoleon Bonaparte, although it is high praise for the French to promote him above one of their old favourites, the former Tricolore scrum-half and later national coach, Jacques Fouroux, who was merely Le Petit Caporal in their eyes.

And while the Borders No 9 might be helping to drag rugby in Scotland out of the shadows of mediocrity and up into the game's higher echelons once more, the Aberdeen-born 22-year-old does not regard himself as some kind of miracle worker.

"I tend not to read too much into what I see in the papers or hear in the media, and anything I do see or hear I take with a big pinch of salt," says the law graduate, who is still debating whether to study for a further year sometime in the future in order to add honours to his ordinary LLB.

So it is left to others to make the assessments, the comparisons and the wild-sounding claims. Certainly since his Scotland debut against Wales in last year's Six Nations Championship, Cusiter has had pundits, scribes, hacks, commentators and even coaches, drooling at his prodigious gifts.

Andy Nicol, the former Scotland scrum-half, has been assisting Matt Williams's coaching team and has been playing particular attention to Cusiter's development, although it has to be said that Nicol sounds as if he is talking himself out of a job when he describes his protege's talents.

"He is a really exciting prospect," says the former Bath scrum-half. "His pass is excellent; his kicking is superb, he has a fine rugby brain, he is electric sharp on the break and his tackling and his work-rate are phenomenal. And he has a fantastic work ethic in training.

"If you look at myself, Gary Armstrong or Bryan Redpath [all former Scotland scrum-halves] we all had our faults. I work with Chris a lot and he does not have a single weakness in his game that I can see. There is nothing that suggests to me he will become anything less than the full package."

Cusiter's role models have been New Zealand's Byron Kelleher - "so aggressive, a huge tackler and some one who has a big break" - and Australia's George Gregan, whose distribution, Cusiter says, is "fantastic". "I have picked out elements of their game and adopted them for myself." But Gary Armstrong also holds a special place in Cusiter's development. "He was not technically perfect, but he had something indefinable. He was just so hard, so durable, he had guts. I'd love to be like him. He was so physical."

But Cusiter, who plays recreational golf and tennis as well acoustic and electric guitar when rugby allows, is getting there. He has bulked out and become much more of a presence on the pitch. "I am happy with my conditioning. I have grown into my body a wee bit," he says.

But for all his obvious talent and all that unstinting praise by Nicol, it is surprising to learn that thus far in his 12-month, 13-cap career, Cusiter has tasted victory just twice - against Samoa and Japan.

Last year, in his debut season, he experienced the pain and humiliation of a Six Nations whitewash. "It has been very frustrating. I think there's been a few occasions when we did not perform as well as we could have, but against France last Saturday for example, we gave a good account of ourselves and performed particularly well in defence, yet we still lost. We felt we'd done enough to win that Test, but after the dust had settled and despite what we thought, we had lost another Test and that is quite hard to take."

With the tournament favourites, Ireland, looming on Saturday the Murrayfield encounter looks a formidable challenge for a side swirling around helplessly, in a seemingly eternal vortex of defeat. But Cusiter is nothing if not focused. He has no time to dwell on the negatives of the past. It is the future which consumes him and his optimism shines through. "We will take something from our performance at the Stade de France and that will give us a certain amount of confidence to against Ireland."

And it is an important match for a number of reasons. Firstly, victory would break Scotland's losing habit; secondly, it is a Lions year with places going begging; on a personal note, Cusiter faces Peter Stringer, one of his rivals for a place on the tour to New Zealand.

Re-enter Nicol. "While no one is a certainty to go on the tour, I would say right now Chris is playing himself on to the plane." Naturally the Lions are not at the forefront of Cusiter's thinking right now. "Of course my thoughts stray to the Lions. It is such a big event in the rugby world, and of course I would love to be selected, but Scottish rugby is more important to me right now. There is enough to focus on without thinking of the summer.

"We need success in the international arena. We need to get enough wins to help put some faith back into the game up here. The welfare of the national team is paramount. Scotland has a big rugby tradition. When the national team is doing well then everyone is optimistic, off the field as well. A couple of wins a couple of good performances and people quickly forget the way we played against South Africa in the autumn."

He is clearly passionate about the game and has been since being introduced to it at the age of nine. "I have to credit my father Stan, a fly-half, for encouraging me to take up the game. He has always been very supportive of everything I have done. I know I can speak to him about my career decisions and my rugby decisions." It was his father who explained the origin of the distinctly un-Scottish sounding family name. "Apparently Cusiter has its origins in `course-setter' who was someone who laid cobblestone roads in the past," Cusiter said.

There is little doubt that young Cusiter is going to be picking up speed on the road to greatness, his enormous talent will almost certainly ensure, though, that that the surface of that route will not be paved with cobblestones.