McGeechan counts on Leslie effect

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The Independent Online

Ian McGeechan and the Scottish Rugby Union hierarchy have found themselves on the uncomfortable end of some sharp criticism over their warm embrace of the so-called "kilted Kiwis" and other minority groupings who would struggle to distinguish between a haggis and a set of bagpipes. Only recently, the former international lock Alistair McHarg spoke publicly of the "disenchantment" and "demoralisation" he detected in the oval-ball community as a result of current selection policy.

McGeechan feels he has won the argument, though, and yesterday he had little hesitation in recalling the New Zealand-born Leslie brothers to his Six Nations side for tomorrow's match with France at Murrayfield at the expense of two "proper" Scots, the Glasgow centre Andrew Henderson and the Newcastle lock Stuart Grimes. John Leslie, who played for Otago against Gavin Hastings' Lions as long ago as 1993, returns to midfield duty for the first time since the autumn, while Martin Leslie's strong form for Edinburgh has persuaded the coach to shift the hard-working Jason White from blind-side flanker to lock.

If Grimes, an impressive performer against the touring All Blacks in November, is paying a price for his more recent anonymity at club and Test level, the 22-year-old Henderson has apparently been omitted for his own well-being in the long term. "Andrew will benefit from the rest," McGeechan explained yesterday. "I want to manage him over an 18-month period; the last thing I want to do is over-pressurise him. He has played a lot of rugby over the last few months and we should not underestimate the progress he has made. It would be counter-productive to risk him getting adverse effects from playing too much."

The senior Leslie, John, is therefore saddled with one of the least enviable tasks in the game: neutralising the all-round brilliance of the Tricolores discovery of the season, Damien Traille. The Pau centre can do pretty much everything – run, kick, tackle – better than Leslie, but the New Zealander has an enormously capable rugby brain and will relish the challenge of drawing Traille's sting and pose a serious threat to French ambitions of a third Grand Slam in five seasons.

He will be aided and abetted from the outside-half position by Scotland's arch-Francophile, Gregor Townsend, who will equal Scott Hastings' record of 65 caps this weekend. Townsend has some climax to the season ahead of him: his club, Castres, are in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup and, bizarrely enough, are also contemplating a struggle against relegation from the élite division of the French league, having finished bottom of their eight-team pool following five consecutive championship defeats.

Meanwhile, the Canadian union is keen on playing England and the United States in an annual triangular tournament, beginning next season. The matches would be played at a single venue over a three-week period, with the top two teams from a round-robin format appearing in a grand final. "There is something in it for everybody," said Pat Parfrey, the president of Rugby Canada, yesterday. "The key for us is to win the support of England and the approval of the International Rugby Board."

England are keen to strengthen links with both North American unions. Twickenham officials have tabled proposals as part of their campaign to persuade the IRB to scrap its current tour schedule and introduce a "mentoring" system, under which major unions would provide financial and technical aid to what they rather patronisingly call the "developing unions". However, the IRB did not exactly perform cartwheels of joy when the proposals reached them, and are unlikely to sanction any new tournament if it conflicts with the programme now in place.

Besides, England are so committed on the international front in the build-up to next year's World Cup that any trip to Canada would involve a development team. Plans for 2003 have yet to be finalised – England have not even finalised plans for this summer – but matches against Japan, New Zealand, Australia and France are all under discussion.

SCOTLAND (v France, Murrayfield, 4.0pm tomorrow): B Laney (Edinburgh); C Paterson (Edinburgh), J McLaren (Glasgow), J Leslie (Northampton), G Metcalfe (Glasgow); G Townsend (Castres), B Redpath (Sale, capt); T Smith (Northampton), G Bulloch (Glasgow), M Stewart (Northampton), S Murray (Saracens), J White (Glasgow), M Leslie (Edinburgh), B Pountney (Northampton), S Taylor (Edinburgh). Replacements: G Graham (Newcastle), R Russell (Saracens), S Grimes (Newcastle), J Petrie (Glasgow), G Beveridge (Glasgow), D Hodge (Edinburgh), K Logan (Wasps).

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