Danielli determined to lighten gloom

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The Independent Online

As you alight from the cross-border train at Waverley Station in Edinburgh, the first sight that greets you in W H Smith - stacked prominently on the main display stand - is Winning! by Sir Clive Woodward. There are plenty of copies remaining. Sipping his Starbuck's frappuccino down the road on George Street, Simon Danielli confesses he has yet to invest £20 in one.

As you alight from the cross-border train at Waverley Station in Edinburgh, the first sight that greets you in W H Smith - stacked prominently on the main display stand - is Winning! by Sir Clive Woodward. There are plenty of copies remaining. Sipping his Starbuck's frappuccino down the road on George Street, Simon Danielli confesses he has yet to invest £20 in one.

Unlike the majority of his senior international colleagues, the strapping Borders wing knows about winning in contests between Scotland and England. Back in March 1998, he scored the last of nine tries in a 56-5 victory at Hughenden in Glasgow - for the England Schools Under-18 team against the Scottish Schools Under-18s. The report in The Scotsman concluded: "The match was so one-sided that a rethink of this fixture is now overdue."

"Crikey!" Danielli exclaims. "I can't really remember that match. To be honest, I had a good time playing in those age-group games. I also enjoyed going on tour to Australia with players like [Jonny] Wilkinson and [Iain] Balshaw. But I've been in the Scottish system for some time now, and I'm really proud of my Scottish roots. To play for Scotland is a real honour."

Danielli is no half-baked, distant son of Caledonia. He was born in Edinburgh and spent the first two years of his life there, before his family moved to Cheltenham. "Obviously, there's no Scottish accent, and there's no recollection of living here," he said. "But I do love Edinburgh. I think it's a great city."

It is 17 months now since Danielli made a try-scoring debut in Scotland's World Cup warm-up win against Italy in the west end of Edinburgh, at Murrayfield. He has recently moved into a house in the suburbs of the Scottish capital, having temporarily lived in Galashiels following his summer transfer from Bath to the Borders.

"I'm learning to find my way around now," he says. "I've also bought a book on the history of Scotland, which I'm halfway through... I've got past the William Wallace bit. Mary Queen of Scots has just been beheaded."

Which brings us to the talk of revolt in the Scottish newspapers on the stand below Sir Clive's winning prose at Waverley - "SRU face breakaway," as one back-page headline threatens in the Evening News. Danielli and the rest of the Scotland squad have been preparing for their 2005 Six Nations opener in the Stade de France on Saturday against the backdrop of the uncivil war for control of the Scottish Rugby Union - which seems certain to spill beyond tonight's special general meeting at Murrayfield.

It can hardly be easy for Matt Williams and his players to focus on the difficult task ahead, starting against the reigning champions in Paris. Danielli, a graduate in philosophy and theology from Trinity College, Oxford, begs to differ. "It's not actually that hard, I don't think," he says. "I'm fairly naïve about what's going on, and I don't think many of us understand the politics.

"We've obviously spoken about it. The bottom line is, as players, we're paid to play and that's all we want to do. Obviously, you think about whether you're going to be in a job next year and stuff like that, but the best way to deal with it, as individuals and as a team, is to play well. And that really is the focus."

Having picked up the Six Nations wooden spoon last season and taken a step backwards with a desperate 45-10 defeat against the Springboks in their last autumn international, Scotland have to contend with an air of doom about events on the field as well as off it. There are precious few shafts of light evident from the outside, save for the burgeoning progress of Chris Cusiter, and the return of the dashing, clinical-finishing Danielli, who missed the autumn series because of keyhole surgery to his right knee.

"It's unfortunate that the South Africa game was the last one, because that's what you're remembered for," Danielli says. "The feeling in the squad was that a lot of progress had been made in the two games against Australia, but no one can hide from the fact that we played very, very badly against South Africa.

"No one is giving us a chance in the Six Nations, which is quite a good thing, I suppose. I don't think we're under any illusions. France and England are both world-class sides, and Ireland and Wales are both approaching that sort of level.

"Every game's going to be a massive battle. We're going to be underdogs in pretty much all of them, so we'll just have to play with that nothing-to-lose attitude, really have a go, and let's hope we'll surprise a few people."

It would be a huge shock if Scotland were to finish their campaign with a winning flourish at Twickenham, where they last triumphed in 1983. It would be no great surprise, though, if their campaign came down to scrapping to avoid another wooden spoon and a first defeat on home soil against Italy. These are bleak times for Scottish rugby, and for Scottish sport, although the Duke of Argyll did lead the country's elephant polo team to a world title last month. "I had absolutely no idea," the chuckling Danielli says. "I'm very proud to hear that."

As yet, though, on the bookshelves at Waverley Station there are no signs of the good duke sharing the secrets of his global success.

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