De Luca looks the part after dress rehearsal on international stage

The outside centre's efforts for Edinburgh have raised hopes he has the X-factor Scotland need, writes Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online

Nick De Luca might be the one new performer on the cast list for Scotland's opening matinee in the Six Nations Championship on Sunday, but the Edinburgh centre has no great reason to worry about fluffing his lines. He has, after all, run through them before on the Murrayfield stage – playing opposite, and eclipsing, the most stellar of central characters.

Back in November, on the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup, the hitherto unheralded De Luca left the princely Yannick Jauzion clutching Scotch mist as he sidestepped his way over the Toulouse try-line. Alas, poor Yannick could not get close enough to know him well and he will not get the chance to do so when the French roll into town on Sunday, having broken not a leg but a hand.

Florian Fritz, Jauzion's Toulouse team-mate, having suffered a leg break in training, the new boy in the Scotland No 13 jersey will have to wait to discover the identity of his direct opposition – the as yet untried international, who last month underlined his credentials by keeping the 79-times-capped Brian O'Driscoll comfortably in his back pocket in Edinburgh's Heineken Cup win against Leinster at Murrayfield.

"Having played against some of the world's best players on the pitch I'll now get my first cap on is obviously going to help me," De Luca pondered after his name appeared on the team sheet rubber-stamped by Frank Hadden, Scotland's head coach, at Murrayfield yesterday. "But I've not had 67,500 people there. I think the most we've had was 6,000 against Leicester. That was noisy, so 67,500 should be something else. But hopefully the experience will help.

"I was very happy with my performance against the likes of Leinster, Leicester and Toulouse. They're big European teams with big-name players, so if you can show your worth against them you go into other games pretty confident. There is always a slight concern that against the leading teams you might be out of place, but you soon learn that they're just rugby players as well."

Hopes are high in Caledonia that De Luca might be something more than just another outside centre. Scotland have had 11 of them since Alan Tait retired at the end of the 1999 Rugby World Cup without finding a long-term solution to what has become an Achilles heel position.

Asked for a summation of the qualities the new boy would bring to the No 13 jersey, coach Hadden replied: "Very good feet. Very competitive. Very confident." Very sharp, very dextrous and very exciting, he might have added. The X-factor that has been absent from Scotland's threequarter line in recent times could well be provided by the young man from Dumfries and Galloway who turns 24 tomorrow and whose rugby career has been subject to a major turnaround in the four months he has spent working under Andy Robinson's tutelage at Edinburgh.

To the casual observer, it might seem that De Luca has enjoyed the smoothest of journeys into the senior international arena, having played for Scotland at Under-16, Under-18, Under-19, Under-21 and A-team levels. His graduation, however, has been far from trouble-free.

After serving his apprenticeship with Edinburgh in the 2005-06 season, he was deemed surplus to requirements at the capital club and transferred to the Border Reivers.

It was not the happiest of moves. The Borders bit the dust at the end of last season, leaving De Luca and his colleagues facing an uncertain future. Then came the disappointment of failing to make the cut for Scotland's 30-man World Cup party, after spending the summer in the extended training squad.

A subsequent move back to Edinburgh – to help plug the gaps left by the exodus of established internationals last summer – has proven to be a turning point for De Luca. "Six months ago I could not have envisaged how this season could have gone," he reflected. "It is only my second season as a full-time professional, so I was just hoping to get in the training squad for the Six Nations, continue to impress and then, hopefully, get some involvement on the summer tour to Argentina.

"My defence has come on a lot with the help of Andy Robinson and of Alan Tait [now Scotland's defence coach]. I've also cut down my error count. But I'm by no means the complete package."

Still, De Luca's emergence on the international sporting scene has been a good news story for Lockerbie – 19 years and one month on from the bombed Pan Am flight that forever twinned the name of his hometown with tragedy. His family's historical home, as his name would suggest, is Italy.

Not that playing for the land of his Roman grandfather was ever an option for De Luca. "Ever since I was wee, it's always been my goal in life to play for Scotland," Edinburgh's centre of potential excellence said.

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