Cross seeks cure for Scotland's ills

Doctor's on call against France but his erudite fellow props may need brawn as much as brains

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Geoff Cross is sitting in the corner of a Murrayfield suite being asked if he can be regarded as "a Sunday tighthead". As was the case in Scotland's last Six Nations' Championship match – the 27-13 defeat against Wales in Cardiff two weeks ago – the Edinburgh prop will fill the front-row cornerstone berth against France in his home town today because Euan Murray does not play on the sabbath.

"It's up to me and the other tightheads in the squad to change that," Cross replies. "The opportunity is there. I believe that if you turn up, train well and show the merit, then you will be selected. I believe selection is a meritocracy."

Meritocracy? There was a time when members of the international front-row union might have put such things a little more plainly. Of the celebrated Pontypool and Wales coalface trio of the 1970s – the Viet Gwent, as Max Boyce famously christened them – Charlie Faulkner and Bobby Windsor both earned their daily crust as steelworkers.

True, Graham Price was a civil engineer, but then he was a tighthead. To get in the queue to fill the scrum anchor position for Scotland, you either have to be a qualified vet, a doctor or a rocket scientist. Well, a rocket scientist of sorts.

Ed Kalman was billed as such in some quarters when he came off the bench to win his first cap in Cardiff. "I asked him about that," Cross says. "He said there was one lecture on rocket science on his course. He's a physicist."

Indeed Kalman, who will be on bench duty again today, gained a physics degree at Durham University. He also has a Masters in technology policy from Fitzwilliam College, the Cambridge alma mater of Vince Cable.

Murray, who declines to play on Sunday because of his Christian beliefs, has a degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Glasgow, whose alumni include James Watt and John Logie Baird. Cross has a degree in medicine from the University of Edinburgh (notable old boys: Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander Graham Bell, Robert Louis Stevenson).

Cross, a 29-year-old Borderer from Galashiels, became the seventh member of his immediate family to qualify as a doctor. Which made it all the more inexplicable when, 20 minutes into his debut match against Wales in 2009, he produced a tackle on Lee Byrne that was one of the most brainless ever seen in the international arena. The Wales full-back was in mid-air as Cross smashed into him, knocking himself out, earning a yellow card and sustaining a knee injury that virtually ended his season.

Three years and 10 caps later, he is still trying to establish himself as something more than a bench man – and Murray's Sunday stand-in. "I find it a lot more useful to see the opportunity in what they are presenting rather than thinking about, 'What if I get struck by lightning? What if I've got the flu? All the ifs, buts and maybes," Cross says.

"Speaking to 'Chunk' [62-cap veteran loosehead prop Allan Jacobsen], who is a little bit further down the road than me in terms of his international career, he says that these sorts of opportunities don't come along very often. You might think there is always the next game, or there is always next year, but if you look at some of the elder statesmen who have retired recently, it does come to an end. These moments are precious. It's important that, no matter how pressurised the situation is, or how big the challenge is, that you see the privilege it is and get stuck in and rise to the occasion."

The pressure is on Scotland today, on the back of four thoroughly frustrating defeats, and with the fixture a sell-out for the first time since 1994. The size of the challenge against France, who have lost just once to the Scots in 13 years, was outlined by Andy Robinson last week. "They destroyed us in the scrum last year," Scotland's head coach said. "We've got to stop them getting momentum."

"The French are very passionate about scrummaging and driving mauls and the other physical aspects of the game," Cross says. "So the question that is being put in front of me is: how good do you want to be? These are the guys to test yourself against. I'm really excited about the challenge."

And what about when push comes to shove? Does it amount to just that: to crouching down and pushing? Or is it more rocket science down there at the coalface? "You can over-analyse," Dr Cross says. "That's something I want to avoid: paralysis by analysis. There is important, salient information that you need, and there is all the other stuff that you don't. There does come a time, though, when it is very useful just to get very angry and go through someone.

"There is a time and a place for that but it should be seen as another tool to use rather than the only thing."

Scotland v France is on BBC2 today, kick-off 3pm