Rugby Union: Scotland selection surprises Pountney

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The Independent Online
WHISPER IT quietly, but Jim Telfer is becoming dangerously radical in his dotage. Scotland's curmudgeon-in-chief took the high-roller's approach to team selection yesterday by naming two open-side flankers, Martin Leslie and Budge Pountney, in his back row for tomorrow's game with France in Paris. If the gamble pays off - and Telfer is on a hot streak just at the moment - it will send one of the world's finest coaches into Five Nations retirement with a smile spread across his hang 'em and flog 'em features.

Scotland were always going to enter the Tricolores' lair with a revamped loose unit once the outstanding Eric Peters fractured a kneecap during last weekend's Premiership match between Bath and Leicester. As expected, Stuart Reid, the Leeds captain, will win his second cap at No 8, three and a half years after making his debut in an eminently forgettable 15- 15 draw with Western Samoa at Murrayfield.

However, the promotion of Pountney, the Northampton breakaway, over Peter Walton, the stronger but slower blind-side specialist from Newcastle, came as a complete surprise. "We think this is the most balanced back row for this game," explained Telfer. "The game is probably more open in France than in other Five Nations countries and when you also take the likely weather conditions into account - it could be as warm as 20 degrees Centigrade in Paris - it makes sense to use the substitution rules to their fullest extent. A fresh player might make a big impact in the last 10 or 15 minutes and someone like Peter, especially, could be quite devastating against opponents who are beginning to tire."

Telfer has long been a graduate of the "horses for courses" school of selection, as he proved with the Lions in South Africa in 1997. But Gregor Townsend, Scotland's outside-half tomorrow, believes the coach returned from that tour with a new fund of ideas and, more importantly, a new willingness to experiment. "He's very tuned in to the latest thinking," said Townsend this week. "I think the Lions experience had a big effect on him; he enjoyed working in a professional environment and encouraging players to make decisions for themselves. He has a fantastic tactical awareness and it's rubbing off on the side."

It will be fascinating to see whether the Pountney-Leslie combination can withstand the threat of a more physical French back row, which boasts one new cap in Christian Labit, the Toulouse flanker, and also sees Thomas Lievremont in his favoured No 8 position at the expense of Christophe Juillet.

Scotland make a further enforced change to the side that recorded a decisive victory over Ireland in Edinburgh three weeks ago, Dave Hilton of Bath replacing the injured Tom Smith at loose-head prop.

SCOTLAND (v France, Paris, tomorrow): G Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians); C Murray, A Tait (both Edinburgh Reivers), J Leslie (Sanix, Japan), K Logan (Wasps); G Townsend (Brive), G Armstrong (Newcastle, capt); D Hilton (Bath), G Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians), P Burnell (London Scottish), S Murray (Bedford), S Grimes (Glasgow Caledonians), B Pountney (Northampton), S Reid (Leeds), M Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers). Replacements: S Longstaff (Glasgow Caledonians), C Chalmers, I Fairley (both Edinburgh Reivers), P Walton (Newcastle), A Reed (Wasps), G Graham (Newcastle), S Brotherstone (Edinburgh Reivers).