Rugby Union: Scots wary of battered Australians

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Britain's shopkeepers take the view that the festive rush starts in the middle of autumn. They probably got the idea from Scotland, who have handed out so many early Christmas presents to southern hemisphere touring sides in recent years that they might as well have been coached by Santa himself.

The last time the Scots won a November international at Murrayfield was in their Grand Slam year of 1990 when Tony Stanger, Gary Armstrong and Craig Chalmers shared four of the nine tries registered in a 49-3 stroll past Argentina. While all three are back to face Australia this afternoon, they will be more mindful of the subsequent howlers against New Zealand, South Africa and Western Samoa than any satisfaction they may have derived from outclassing the Pumas.

Scotland's hopes of beating the Wallabies for the first time in 14 years are based on two assumptions: first, that the tourists have lost so many class players and are so exhausted after an epic summer at both provincial and Test level that they will be in no condition to raise a gallop; and, secondly, that the home forwards' exposure to high-quality competition through the European Cup will render them more resistant to the rigours of an early-season international.

Neither theory is completely without foundation, although the Scots are once again living more in hope than expectation. The tourists have indeed shed vast quantities of priceless experience since losing their world title in South Africa 17 months ago, and their cause today has hardly been helped by an almost contagious rash of breaks and strains to various finely-muscled limbs. Three of the current party will soon be on the plane home - indeed, Adam Magro's foot injury means they now need a replacement for a replacement - but at least they lasted longer than Garrick Morgan, the hulking rough diamond of a lock who failed to survive the first 10 seconds of last month's game against Italy A.

It is also true to say that the Scottish pack might show more staying power than Frank Bruno on this occasion. Five of them are playing hard stuff week in, week out, in England and of the others, Murray Wallace will enter the fray with the kind of fury that befits any new cap while the hooker, Kevin McKenzie, should be like a greyhound out of the traps. After all, he has played only twice all season.

Yet somehow the Wallabies appear to want this one more. There were few smiles among the tourists yesterday and Greg Smith, their coach, was intent on keeping it that way after a week of slatings from his rivals back home. "If we win, the critics will disappear for a while, go back to wherever they came from," he said. "If we lose, they'll be out there, throwing rocks at us." The tone of his voice did not suggest that he had even contemplated the second scenario.

Smith's decision to drop David Campese to the bench is by no means a gamble, far less a panic measure. Joe Roff, the new left wing, was good enough to score four tries against the parsimonious Springbok James Small in one Super-12 match last March and with Matt Burke and Tim Horan, he forms a back three of rich attacking potential.

The Scots will be hard pressed to handle the back five of the Wallaby pack, too, where John Eales and Warwick Waugh should provide a secure platform from which to launch the heavy artillery personified by Owen Finegan and a seriously impressive specimen of a No 8, the Tongan-born Daniel Manu.

None of that appeared to worry Gregor Townsend, the new Scottish captain, as his men trotted through their final training session yesterday. "Although we came close to a Grand Slam last season, we didn't really fulfil our ambitions," he said. "All the Five Nations' Championship did was to give us something to build on and now we need to concentrate on making the most of the chances we create - and, yes, I expect us to keep on creating those opportunities against the Wallabies."

Today's match will be the first international in which coaches can use tactical substitutes. Unfortunately, for the Scots, they have been unable to talk Gavin Hastings, David Sole, John Jeffrey and Finlay Calder into a tour of duty on the bench.

SCOTLAND (v Australia, Murrayfield, 3pm): R Shepherd (Melrose); A Stanger (Hawick), G Townsend (Northampton, capt), R Eriksson (London Scottish), K Logan (Stirling County); C Chalmers (Melrose), G Armstrong (Newcastle); D Hilton (Bath), K McKenzie (Stirling County), B Stewart (Edinburgh Academicals), D Cronin (Wasps), D Weir (Newcastle), N Wallace (Glasgow HK), E Peters (Bath), I Smith (Gloucester). Replacements: D Stark (Melrose), S Hastings (Watsonians), B Redpath (Melrose), S Murray (Bedford), A Watt (Currie), G Ellis (Currie).

AUSTRALIA: M Burke (NSW); T Horan (Queensland), D Herbert (Queensland), P Howard, J Roff; D Knox (all ACT), S Payne (NSW); R Harry (NSW), M Foley (Queensland), A Blades (NSW), W Waugh (NSW), J Eales (Queensland, capt), O Finegan (ACT), D Manu (NSW), D Wilson (Queensland). Replacements: D Campese (NSW), R Tombs (NSW), G Gregan (ACT), A Heath (NSW), M Caputo (ACT), A N Other.

Scotland A continued their impressive form with a deserved 32-19 victory over South Africa A at Hawick last night. The Scots scored four tries to two a balance which reflected their superiority throughout the match.