Cusiter singing from Armstrong hymn sheet

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The Independent Online

As part of his long-term programme to drag Scottish rugby into the 21st century [to avoid "the real danger of becoming an irrelevance on the International stage," as he put it last week], Matt Williams has introduced a National Team Mentor Group into his formative Scotland squad structure.

Some of the recent greats of the Scottish game - Finlay Calder, Gavin Hastings, John Jeffrey, Iwan Tukalo and Kenny Milne - have been enlisted by Scotland's coach of three months to help nurture and maximise the youthful talent he started blooding on his own match-day baptism in Cardiff last Saturday.

The name of Gary Armstrong does not feature on the list but already the veteran Border terrier of a scrum-half is hastening the development of one of the new Caledonian rugby generation. Of the four international debutants and three Six Nations' new boys who featured in the 23-10 defeat against Wales, none made a more favourable impact than Chris Cusiter.

Aside from Simon Taylor's last-minute try from close-range, the one shaft of attacking light for Scotland was Cusiter's electrifying 35-yard break midway through the second-half. It came to nothing but showed a glimpse of the talent possessed by the scrum-half. Together with the service that increased in smooth, speedy efficiency as the game progressed, and the feisty doggedness of Cusiter's play, it also reflected the influence of Armstrong.

The 37-year-old master has taken the apprentice under his wing with the Borders this season, helping to hone his long pass and his all-round game in much the same way that Roy Laidlaw did with him at Jed-Forest [Laidlaw even moved to outside-half to play alongside the youthful Armstrong] before he succeeded his club-mate as the No 9 in the national side.

The Scotland XV which lines up to face England in the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield today has many shortcomings - not least a lack of penetration among the three- quarters - but the scrum-half conveyor belt that has produced Laidlaw, Armstrong, Andy Nicol and Bryan Redpath in an unbroken operation dating back to the late 1970s appears to remain in first-class working order.

Cusiter has assumed the No 9 mantle at the age of 21. Armstrong was a year older when he was blooded against Nick Farr-Jones and the Wallabies at Murrayfield in 1988. He retired from the international stage five years ago but continues to inspire awe with his form at club-level.

"Great player," Cusiter says, reverentially, at the mention of Armstrong's name. "Still is a great player. Watching him against Agen a couple of weeks ago ... I mean he was just phenomenal. Not many scrum-halves in the world could play the way he did that night.

"He plays the position so well and he's got so much experience behind him. It has been great having him there at the Borders on a daily basis, because not many coaches could pass on the things he can pass on to me. I just feel very lucky to have him to work with. He must be one of the hardest men in the Borders and in Scotland. I'll have to go some way to replicate the kind of courage he plays with."

It's a sign of the rapidly changing playing guard in Scottish rugby that their new scrum-half has no first-hand recall of the courage with which Armstrong played in Scotland's famous Grand Slam victory against England at Murrayfield in 1990. He was only seven at the time. "I do remember my dad coming home and talking about the game," Cusiter says. "He was at Murrayfield that day. And I've seen the video of the Tony Stanger try numerous times since.

"I grew up in a rugby family. My dad played for the North and Midlands. I was brought up watching the Calcutta Cup and it's a dream come true to be playing in it this year. To be playing against England, now that they are world champions, is just fantastic." Not that Cusiter appears to be in any danger of being overawed by Clive Woodward's dazzling All Whites - the dancing feet of Jason Robinson and all. "We respect them very highly," he says. "They're world champions and they're playing great rugby, but we have to believe we can win.

"You can't worry about individual players. You just want to impose your game on them and stop them playing the game the way they want to play." Such pragmatism could be drawn directly from the Gary Armstrong manual. Not without cause does the Borders veteran confess to seeing his younger self in the Scotland new boy. Whatever his fate at Murrayfield today, it is unlikely to be Cusiter's last stand for Scotland.