Rugby union: Scotland stand by status quo

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IF FIVE NATIONS' Championships were decided on loyalty rather than pace and power, Jim Telfer would mark his final Highland fling as Scotland's coach with a Grand Slam.

Telfer yesterday announced his 22-man squad for this weekend's delicately poised Celtic set-to with Ireland at Murrayfield. Despite the return to form and fitness of some obvious World Cup candidates - Jamie Mayer and Matthew Proudfoot among them - he decided to stand by the players who gave the national fortunes such a significant leg up in the early matches of the tournament.

Indeed, Telfer has invested so much faith in the status quo that only Gary Armstrong, his captain, has succeeded in gatecrashing the party responsible for the friendly victory over Italy in Edinburgh a fortnight ago. The Newcastle scrum-half missed the Azzurri date because of elbow trouble, but fears that he had broken a bone proved unfounded and he is ready to reclaim the No 9 shirt from Ian Fairley.

Mayer, the much-discussed Edinburgh Reivers centre, has been in blinding form with the second-string Scotland A team of late, but the 21-year-old newcomer loses out to the more seasoned John Leslie-Alan Tait partnership on this occasion.

Similarly, Proudfoot has failed to break back into the front row, despite a physical frame that almost constitutes a front row on its own. Telfer seems certain to stick with Paul Burnell at tight head, with the outstanding Tom Smith at loose head and Dave Hilton of Bath on the bench.

"Having a settled squad makes a tremendous difference because it means we can get to work on the training ground straight away," explained Telfer, who has never been a great one for wasting precious preparation time on unnecessary introductions.

"There are things we need to work on. If we are honest with ourselves, we weren't very happy with the overall performance against Italy. Most urgently, we need to get more shape into our forward play."

Given Italy's imminent arrival at the top table of European rugby - come next February, they will be loading their bullets alongside the traditional big guns in the first Six Nations' Championship - it will be fascinating to see how Graham Henry's buoyant Wales team deals with them in Treviso on Saturday.

The former Auckland coach is taking nothing for granted, making just one change to the XV that prevailed in such glorious technicolor over France 10 days ago.

Gareth Thomas, a fixture in recent Welsh line-ups when fully fit, comes in on the right wing for Matthew Robinson, whose defensive frailties were exposed by the Tricolores in Paris. It will be Thomas' first Test start since the pre-Christmas victory over Argentina and his strike-rate - 14 tries in 31 internationals - makes him a clear first choice, despite Robinson's qualities as an elusive attacking runner.

The Welsh bench shows several changes, however. Neil Boobyer, the utility back from Llanelli, and Richmond's Nick Walne take their places among the substitute threequarters while Darren Morris, the Swansea prop, and Geraint Lewis, the highly rated Pontypridd flanker, are drafted in as forward reinforcements.

SCOTLAND SQUAD (Five Nations' Championship v Ireland, Murrayfield, Saturday): Backs: G Armstrong (Newcastle, capt), C Chalmers (Edinburgh Reivers), I Fairley (Edinburgh Reivers), J Leslie (Glasgow Caledonians), K Logan (Wasps), S Longstaff (Glasgow Caledonians), G Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians), C Murray (Edinburgh Reivers), A Tait (Edinburgh Reivers), G Townsend (Brive). Forwards: S Brotherstone (Edinburgh Reivers), G Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians), P Burnell (London Scottish), S Grimes (Glasgow Caledonians), D Hilton (Bath), M Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers), S Murray (Bedford), E Peters (Bath), B Pountney (Northampton), A Reed (Wasps), T Smith (Glasgow Caledonians), P Walton (Newcastle).

WALES TEAM (v Italy, Treviso, Saturday): S Howarth (Sale); G Thomas (Cardiff), M Taylor (Swansea), S Gibbs (Swansea), D James (Pontypridd); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); P Rogers (London Irish), G Jenkins (Swansea), B Evans (Swansea), C Quinnell (Richmond), C Wyatt (Llanelli), C Charvis (Swansea), B Sinkinson (Neath), S Quinnell (Llanelli). Replacements: N Boobyer (Llanelli), N Walne (Richmond), D Llewellyn (Ebbw Vale), G Lewis (Pontypridd), M Voyle (Llanelli), D Morris (Swansea), B Williams (Richmond).