Rugby Union: Wainwright's dual campaign begins

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The Independent Online
Rob Wainwright has said all the right things in all the right places as Scotland's captain during the build-up to this afternoon's Five Nations' Championship skirmish between Scotland and Wales at Murrayfield, diplomatically balancing his sympathy for the absent Kevin McKenzie with some positive support for the hooker's much criticised replacement, Graham Ellis. He has also avoided being drawn into the Lions trap. Lions? Never heard of them.

Not even Wainwright can expect to get away with that one for too much longer, though. A strong performance in Edinburgh today will establish him as the clear front-runner for the biggest honour in the British game: the Lions captaincy in South Africa this summer. Whether he likes it or lumps it, the army doctor from Perth will be playing for more than national pride over the next two and a half months.

"As far as I'm concerned, the 15 Scotsmen facing Wales will be totally focused on one thing and one thing only - representing their country and making sure of victory," he said yesterday. Yes, and Mike Tyson is taking up ballet.

Provided Wainwright stays fit - today's appearance is only his fifth since undergoing surgery on troublesome groin and Achilles problems last autumn - the only way he will not claim a seat on the plane to Johannesburg is if his employers decide to stick him on a flight to Sarajevo instead. He admitted yesterday that a summer tour of duty in Bosnia was a possibility, adding: "The Army are my main employers - I'm a semi-professional rugby player, not a full-timer - and if they want to send me somewhere, I'm at their beck and call."

For all that, Fran Cotton and his fellow Lions selectors will be taking a deep interest in the versatile loose forward's performance against the Welsh. At this stage, Wainwright's most obvious rival for top spot in Springbok land is Jason Leonard, the England prop and vice-captain, with Martin Johnson, the England lock, in the stalls as a dark horse despite his lack of leadership experience.

While Wainwright was playing down any talk of bigger and better things, Craig Chalmers felt able to put this afternoon's intriguing tussle into a more realistic Lions perspective. "The tour is something that will be on the minds of most of the players in the Five Nations," said Scotland's outside-half, who wins his 50th cap. "If it's not, I'll be deeply surprised. After all, it's the pinnacle.

"The Five Nations matches are, in a way, trials for the Lions and I've been around long enough to know that any Scot not fully tuned in against Wales will not be going to South Africa."

Chalmers will be more tuned in than most today. Uncomfortably aware of the fact that many Scots consider Gregor Townsend to be the best stand- off in the country - Townsend, passed fit after Wednesday's neck strain alarm, plays in the centre - the Melrose linchpin needs to be at his most creative if the selectors' bold attacking policy is to bear fruit. But as he admitted yesterday: "Much depends on the kind of ball provided by the pack."

There lies the rub for the Scots. McKenzie's worryingly serious neck injury, diagnosed as a slipped disc requiring urgent surgery if it is not to damage the spinal cord, deprives the home side of their most ebullient and competitive forward; the Welsh, confident of their scrummaging strength and equipped, on paper at least, to squeeze their opponents in the close exchanges, were not exactly distraught at the prospect of facing a hooker and a tight-head prop with one cap between them.

Wainwright was quick to commiserate with McKenzie, who will miss the rest of the season, but was even more keen to make Ellis, the 31-year- old Currie hooker, feel at home on the eve of his big day. "It's disappointing to lose Kevin, but Graham is every bit as committed a player and every bit as big a character," he said.

Ellis received similar support from a more unexpected source, erstwhile team-mate and sparring partner Damian Cronin. The pair fell out to such an extent during a training session on last summer's tour of New Zealand that they ended up throwing punches at each other. "I know how hard Graham has worked to get this chance and I'm sure he'll do well," said Cronin, a model of tact despite being dropped for today's game.

The Scottish pack cannot afford the time to indulge in any handbag-swinging this afternoon. Pace will be of the essence for Wainwright's men; unless they can stretch their heavier opponents from one side of Murrayfield to another, last year's Grand Slam challengers could see this season's campaign falter at the first hurdle.

SCOTLAND v WALES

at Murrayfield

R Shepherd Melrose 15 N Jenkins Pontypridd

A Stanger Hawick 14 I Evans Llanellii

S Hastings Watsonians 13 A Bateman Richmond

G Townsend Northampton 12 S Gibbs Swansea

K Logan Stirling County 11 G Thomas Bridgend

C Chalmers Melrose 10 A Thomas Swansea

G Armstrong Newcastle 9 R Howley Cardiff

D Hilton Bath 1 C Loader Swansea

G Ellis Currie 2 J Humphreys Cardiff, capt

M Stewart Northampton 3 D Young Cardiff

G Weir Newcastle 4 G Llewellyn Harlequins

A Reed Wasps 5 M Rowley Pontypridd

P Walton Newcastle 6 S Williams Neath

R Wainwright Watsonians, capt 8 S Quinnell Richmond

M Wallace Glasgow High/Kelvinside 7 C Charvis Swansea

Referee: B Smith (Ireland) Kick-off: 3pm (BBC1)

Replacements: 16 D Stark (Melrose), 17 R Eriksson (London Scottish), 18 B Redpath (Melrose), 19 S Monro (Glasgow High/Kelvinside), 20 T Smith (Watsonians), 21 S Brotherstone (Melrose).

Replacements: 16 J Davies (Cardiff), 17 P Jones (Pontypridd), 18 C Quinnell (Richmond), 19 G Jones (Cardiff) 20 L Mustoe (Cardiff), 21 G Jenkins (Swansea).

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