MacLeod stands tall as raw Scots face up to Australian attack

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The Independent Online

Scotland's meeting with Australia today, which was tacked on to the front of the three scheduled autumn internationals, is being held to celebrate the opening of the new Scottish Parliament while at the same time conveniently supplying funds for new player contracts for the three district teams. Clearly, business is hectic within the freshly-painted corridors of Holyrood, because a planned curtain-raiser showcasing the tag rugby skills of MSPs has been dropped from today's early-evening Murrayfield programme. Only four Caledonian parliamentarians volunteered to play.

Matt Williams, Scotland's Australian coach, has suffered from a similar lack of numbers in his preparations for the main event, which kicks off at 5.30pm. The Sydneysider has a list of ill and injured featuring such blue-chip performers as Simon Taylor, Scott Murray, Tom Smith and Simon Danielli. The refusal of England's Zurich Premiership clubs to release players for an international arranged at short notice outside the International Rugby Board's autumn window has also deprived him of Jason White, Stuart Grimes and Ben Hinshelwood.

Still, when Williams succeeded Ian McGeechan 11 months ago he did outline a vision of "Fortress Scotland", with a squad of home-based players manning the barricades. In the Murrayfield gloaming today he will get a chance to measure the strength and depth of his native resources.

"There are a number of new caps on the field and on the bench and some of these guys will grasp this opportunity," Williams said. "Since I took over, we've already had Chris Cusiter, Ally Hogg and Sean Lamont coming through, and some of the other young guys in this team will do the same."

At 25, Scott MacLeod happens to be one of the middle-aged in the first exclusively home-based Scotland XV since 1985. He will be making his international debut, however, just five years after playing his first game of rugby.

"It was just past my 20th birthday," the 6ft 6in lock reflected. "My brother played for Hawick Trades and I went along with him." Having made high-speed progress via Hawick Trades, Hawick, the Borders Under-21 side and the region's professional team, MacLeod finds himself filling the shoes of the injured Murray, who was once a Scottish Schools basketball international. The new man in Scotland's second row played basketball for Boroughmuir before he belatedly found rugby, although he might never have tried his hand at either game.

"Golf was my first love," MacLeod confessed. "I won the Borders championships at Under-16s, Under-18s and Under-21s. I was hoping to go on a scholarship to America, but I got sent to loads of coaches and that screwed my head up. I played my best golf when I was just swinging the club and not thinking about it."

MacLeod will be hoping to bring his natural athleticism to bear in a pack that includes another debutant from the Borders. Scott Gray, who gets his chance at blind-side flanker, was born and raised in Zimbabwe and spent five years playing both codes of rugby in Australia before moving to Bath, where he failed to make an impact. He qualifies for Scotland through his father, who was born in Barrhead.

There are two other uncapped players on the bench, the hooker Ross Ford and lock Alastair Kellock, while at full-back Stuart Moffat makes what might be described as a second debut. Capped three times in 2002, the 27-year-old was thrown on the professional scrap-heap by Glasgow in May and was considering starting a business career in Sydney before being handed a contract by the Borders. "I'd like to think I've come back stronger," Moffat said. "I've got a bit of anger inside me now. What happened has been a bit of a motivator. I was pretty close to going to work in Australia."

If nothing else, Moffat's selection will ensure interest in the occasion from an least one MSP. His step-father, David McLetchie, is the honourable member for Edinburgh Pentlands and leader of the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament.

Moffat once scored a century for Cambridge in the Varsity Match, and as the last line of the home guard at Murrayfield today his principal task will be to help avoid the running up of anything approaching a cricket score by the opposition.

While Williams will be hoping to catch Eddie Jones's Wallabies on the hop on the first leg of their European tour - and in a state of some disorientation, given the shuffling of their pack in the wake of the lost Tri-Nations decider in Durban in August, Scotland have not beaten Australia since 1982. They have not got within 20 points of them since 1996. For all the youthful hope of the new Caledonians, they are unlikely to get any closer today.

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