Rugby Union: Scots bank on Townsend's talents

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The Independent Online
JEREMY GUSCOTT knows a thing or two about Five Nations rugby, not least how it feels to concede the Calcutta Cup to the "men in skirts", as the English like to label their kilted rivals from north of Hadrian's Wall. So when the great Bath centre describes Scotland's new midfield trio as "pretty much the equal of anything in the world", it is wise to listen. The smart money may be going on a handsome red rose victory at Twickenham tomorrow, but the favourites are genuinely fearful of the craftsmen in the visitors' creative forge.

Jim Telfer, the crafty old fox who is nearing the end of his latest spell as Scotland coach, confirmed yesterday that Gregor Townsend, his single richest talent, would play at outside-half after a brief and perplexing flirtation with the No 13 shirt. John Leslie continues at inside centre with Alan Tait outside him. "Anyone can play off Gregor and anyone can play off Leslie," said Guscott. "As for Tait, he has gone from union to league and back to union and proved himself a force to be reckoned with at every stage. They'll cause us problems, that's for sure."

Which is exactly how Jolly Jim sees it. "This is the best formation for playing the English back division," Telfer agreed after confirming his line-up for the 116th meeting of the oldest rivals in the international game. Those who wondered what the hell the coach was thinking of when he picked Townsend at outside centre for the championship opener with Wales 15 days ago would have been even more confused at the coach's sudden switch of sentiment, but Scottish selectors often move in mysterious ways.

The fact is that Townsend elevated the blue-shirted hordes to another level when he moved to his optimum No 10 position to replace the injured Duncan Hodge midway through the Welsh encounter; indeed, all three members of Telfer's revamped midfield axis scored tries as the Scots registered an unexpected 33-20 victory.

"Gregor can mesmerise you," admitted Guscott, who played outside the mercurial maestro from Edinburgh throughout the 1997 Lions Test series in South Africa. "He's quick, unpredictable and shows the ball well enough to suck you in. It's a dangerous back division they have there."

Many believe it will be more dangerous still if Cameron Murray, the Edinburgh Reivers wing, fails to recover from the virus that forced his isolation from the squad yesterday. His withdrawal would presumably mean promotion for Shaun Longstaff, the no-nonsense 16-stone wing from Glasgow Caledonians via New Zealand who crossed for a consolation try in last year's corresponding fixture at Murrayfield. Craig Joiner, a versatile back-line operator who has struck a rich vein of recent form at Leicester, has moved up from the second-string A squad as extra cover.

Sadly for the Scots, the one enforced change up front does little to enhance their chances of a first victory at Twickenham since 1983. The loss of Doddie Weir, who broke an ankle during the Wales match, is a grievous blow and for all Telfer's faith in Stuart Grimes, 6ft 6in of Aberdeen granite, the Scottish pack looks rather less threatening than the back division.

"Actually, it was a toss-up between Stuart and Doddie at the start of the season," insisted the coach yesterday. "Doddie got the nod, but Stuart is every bit as good a player. I have no worries about him; he has played a good deal of top-class rugby and done consistently well this season."

At least Grimes and his engine-room partner, Scott Murray, know what it is to brave the fires together: they first linked up in Australia last summer and delighted Telfer by going toe to toe with John Eales and Tom Bowman and giving the best second-row combination in the game a few things to ponder.

"We said when we returned from Australia that we had taken strides forward and Stuart and Scott were among those responsible," said the coach. To what extent the Wallaby experience will help them live with Martin Johnson and Tim Rodber remains to be seen.

SCOTLAND (v England, Five Nations Championship, Twickenham tomorrow): G Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians); C Murray (Edinburgh Reivers), A Tait (Edinburgh Reivers), J Leslie (Glasgow Caledonians), K Logan (Wasps); G Townsend (Brive), G Armstrong (Newcastle Falcons, capt); T Smith (Glasgow Caledonians), G Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians), P Burnell (London Scottish), S Murray (Bedford), S Grimes (Glasgow Caledonians), P Walton (Newcastle Falcons), E Peters (Bath), M Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers). Replacements: S Longstaff (Glasgow Caledonians), C Chalmers (Edinburgh Reivers), I Fairley (Edinburgh Reivers), B Pountney (Northampton), A Reed (Wasps), D Hilton (Bath), S Brotherstone (Edinburgh Reivers).