Rugby Union: Veteran Burnell bundled into Scots' front row

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The Independent Online
WHEN Paul Burnell hopped aboard the first available flight from London to Edinburgh yesterday, he found himself so comprehensively outnumbered by 22 England players with Calcutta Cup glory on their minds that he must have felt like parachuting back off again. When he renews his acquaintance with the Red Rose army on Sunday, the odds will be more in his favour; man against man, 15 against 15.

Burnell, a Test Lion five years ago but, at 33, deep into rugby middle age, was called into the Scotland front row yesterday when Mattie Stewart, the first-choice tight head from Northampton, withdrew with shoulder trouble. He leapfrogged several higher-ranked contenders, including George Graham of Newcastle, who remains on the bench, a victim of his own versatility.

"We were looking for an out-and-out tight-head prop," explained the Scottish team manager, Arthur Hastie. "Most of the other people were merely loose- heads capable of moving across to the other side of the scrum." A brave man, Hastie. Some of Scotland's more formidable No 1s - Ian McLauchlan, Jim Aitken and David Sole to name but three - will be less than amused at being described as "mere" anythings.

Jim Telfer, the national coach, pointed to Burnell's Test experience as the deciding factor and there is no doubt that the London Scottish captain has served his time in the trenches. First capped against England at Twickenham in 1989, he featured in six consecutive Five Nations' Championships and two World Cups before making the last of his 41 appearances against Western Samoa in 1995.

And if 30 months is a long sabbatical from international rugby, it has nothing on the six years separating Dean Ryan's last England cap from Sunday's tribal set-to at Murrayfield. Indeed, if Burnell makes a decent fist of this one, he may yet approach the record 50 caps collected by Sandy Carmichael between 1967 and 1978.

However, the front row is an area of obvious weakness for the Scots and they could have done without a reshuffle at this late stage. Burnell will have to introduce himself to his hooker, the West of Scotland captain Gordon Bulloch, and while the latter stages of his Test career overlapped with that of his fellow prop, Dave Hilton, they started only the Western Samoa match as the first-choice pairing.

There was less joyful news for another member of Scotland's veteran brigade yesterday: Ian Smith, the former Gloucester open-side flanker now plying an autumnal trade at Moseley, was ruled out of this summer's tour of Australia because of troublesome knee ligaments - his first serious injury in 15 years of top-flight activity. Smith had already dropped off the bench for the Calcutta Cup match and will undergo surgery today to repair his left knee.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, Bill Watson, had more complex, if less painful, problems to negotiate. The SRU was taken to task by Donald Gorrie, the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, for succumbing to television pressure and shifting the big game to a Sunday for the first time in its 127-year history.

Indeed, the honourable member went so far as to introduce an Early Day Motion "regretting" the move, thereby leaving Watson no choice but to use similar language in defence of his august organisation. "It is regrettable that an MP should introduce a motion that is factually incorrect," he fumed. "It is also regrettable that other parliamentarians should put their signatures to it without contacting the SRU to verify the fact that we had no choice but to hold the match on the day requested by the BBC, who hold the broadcasting rights.

"They have the right within their contract with the Five Nations Committee to specify both the days on which matches should be played and the kick- off times. However, because of spectators' travelling arrangements and other practical considerations, we would prefer all Five Nations matches to be played on a Saturday and will continue to make that view clearly to the BBC."

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