Rugby World Cup: Telfer and McGeechan supply the brain power

THE MAIN CONTENDERS New Zealand have the focus, Wales have the form while the Scots have shrewdness and South Africans are in transition
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GRAHAM MOURIE, perhaps the most tactically adept All Black captain of them all, once admitted that it was next to impossible for any leader radically to alter the course of events during a match. The real brainwork, he agreed, takes place off the field, generally in a whitewashed room sparsely equipped with a table, a blackboard and a few dozen plastic coffee cups full of lukewarm sludge. It is the environment in which the likes of Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan earn their corn and enhance their joint reputation as the most potent think-tank in modern rugby.

The Scots have more than their fair share of problems on the pitch, what with their tiny top-class playing population, their shortage of forwards of genuine physical stature, and the emasculation of a once-thriving club culture. But, off the pitch, they are state-of-the-art with knobs on. No one gets more from his international charges than McGeechan, surely the cleverest rugby psychologist since the late, great Carwyn James. No one understands the mental and phsyical dynamics of a forward pack better than Telfer, who used his alchemist's skills to such striking effect on the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa.

Even without McGeechan on board, the Scots finished the last northern hemisphere season as Five Nations champions; indeed, had they realised how good they were when they played at Twickenham in February, they might easily have added a Grand Slam to their European title. Now that the partnership has been reforged - McGeechan is beavering away behind the scenes as a coach without portfolio and will continue to do so until Telfer retires as national coach at the end of this tournament - the rugby buzz north of the border is louder than at any time since the 1991 World Cup.

Scotland could make a serious dent on this competition, simply because their traditional weakness is no longer much of a weakness. For the first time in many moons, they possess a tight five capable of going toe to toe with the Boks, the Blacks, the French and the English, and surviving to tell the tale. Tom Smith is a world beater on the loose head, Gordon Bulloch may well end the tournament as the world's most talked-about hooker and Scott Murray's boilerhouse partnership with either Stuart Grimes or Doddie Weir will force the best opposition to think on their feet. Possession, or rather lack of it, should not be an issue.

As usual, the Scottish loose forwards can be depended on to make do and mend; the loss of Eric Peters is a cruel setback, but the re-emergence of Gordon Simpson softens the blow. And outside? A quick reading of the runes reveals some very positive portents. Gregor Townsend's recovery from micro-surgery on a troublesome knee was always going to be the crucial factor and, as long as he stays fit, the Scots will threaten from every area of the paddock. John Leslie looks the part at inside centre and in the unlikely event of the rejuvenated Alan Tait feeling his age, young Jamie Mayer will come bullocking into the midfield equation. Classy, very classy.

Above and beyond everything else is the draw. To be a Scot in this competition is to be sitting on God's right hand. Even if South Africa win at Murrayfield on Sunday - and that is by no means a certainty - Telfer's tribe will keep their home advantage all the way to the semi-finals. Remember the 1991 tournament? The Edinburgh roar on knock-out days and the Saturday night crushes on Prince's Street? Gary Armstrong, that wonderfully resourceful scrum-half from Jedburgh, was an integral component of that Scottish team and he recalls every second of it. As captain of this side, he would love to repeat the experience.


Coach: Jim Telfer

Captain: Gary Armstrong

World Cup record: 1987 - Quarter-finalists; 1991 - 4th; 1995 - Quarter- finalists

How they qualified: Winners of European Pool 3

Registered adult players: 12,100


Glenn Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians)

Chris Paterson (Edinburgh Reivers)

Cameron Murray (Edinburgh Reivers)

Kenny Logan (Wasps)

Shaun Longstaff (Glasgow Caledonians)

Alan Tait (Edinburgh Reivers)

John Leslie (Sanix)

James McLaren (Bourgoin-Jallieu)

Jamie Mayer (Bristol)

Gregor Townsend (Brive)

Duncan Hodge (Edinburgh Reivers)

Gary Armstrong (Newcastle, capt)

Bryan Redpath (Narbonne)

Iain Fairley (Edinburgh Reivers)

Tom Smith (Glasgow Caledonians)

Paul Burnell (Montferrand)

George Graham (Newcastle)

Dave Hilton (Glasgow Caledonians)

Gordon Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians)

Robert Russell (Edinburgh Reivers)

Scott Murray (Saracens)

Stuart Grimes (Newcastle)

Doddie Weir (Newcastle)

Andy Reed (Wasps)

Cammie Mather (Edinburgh Reivers)

Martin Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers)

Budge Pountney (Northampton)

Gordon Simpson (Glasgow Caledonians) Peter Walton (Newcastle)

Stuart Reid (Narbonne)

Key player

TOM SMITH (Loose-head prop)

Scotland have not possessed so dependable a cornerstone since the Mighty Mouse, Ian MacLauchlan, called it a day fully 20 years ago. They have not had a ball-handling prop with such footballing intelligence since David Sole packed it in after the 1992 tour of Australia. Smith's injury record is too lengthy for comfort, but he tends to be around when he is most needed.