Scotland need a talisman: Ross might just be it

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The Independent Online

In a previous sporting existence, Gordon Ross had it down to a tee - until the day he came across Justin Rose, that is. It was his misfortune to be drawn against the budding young English golfer in the annual schoolboys' fixture between England and the Auld Enemy. The future Scotland outside-half suffered what is known north of Berwick as "a gubbing".

It was all rugby after that for the multi-talented Ross. An Edinburgh lad, he had already spent two years training as a midfielder-cum-sweeper with the youth team at Heart of Midlothian football club - alongside Grant Brebner, who progressed to the professional ranks with Manchester United and Hibernian.

Now 25, Ross does manage to get in the occasional round of golf. "Officially, I still play off two," he says, "but unofficially it's about five or six."

Scotland's handicap going into the fifth Rugby World Cup ought to be the subject of similar revision. Quarter-finalists four years ago, with Alan Tait and Gary Armstrong in their ranks, they were seeded to make the last eight again this time.

But that was before John Leslie lost the last vestige of the cutting edge Scotland enjoyed in midfield (and before he subsequently retired from the international game) - and before Ian McGeechan was afflicted by such misfortune as Budge Pountney's ungracious withdrawal of back-row labour, followed by news of Nikki Walker's pending trial on assault charges after the Borders wing was called up as the surprise selection in the final World Cup squad.

As the failure of the fast-tracked Caledonian Brendan Laney to come up to international scratch has highlighted, McGeechan has not exactly enjoyed a surfeit of talented playing reserves in his second spell as national coach. He has also suffered from Gregor Townsend's frustrating inability to fulfil his true potential as a playmaker of world class.

Townsend has made the squad for Australia, despite undergoing keyhole surgery after twisting a knee in training last month. The 30-year-old, however, is no longer the No 1 choice at No 10. That mantle has fallen upon the shoulders of the diminutive Ross.

The 5ft 8in flyweight of a fly-half might not be blessed with the same natural flair as Townsend, but he has a more acute sense for taking the right option and a much tidier all-round game. On his debut, against Tonga at Murrayfield in November 2001, he kicked 23 points, a record score for a Scotland new-boy. And his assured performance was a key factor in the 21-6 Murrayfield victory against South Africa in November 2002, Scotland's first success against the Springboks since 1969 - nine years before Ross was born.

There has been a Caledonian clamour for Chris Pater-son to be given a run at outside-half, the position he played at Gala, but after a bitterly disappointing display by Townsend against Wales in August, Ross is again the man in possession of the No 10 shirt.

"I've tried not to think about all the talk about Chris, to be honest," he says. "The management have seen Chris and Gregor a lot over the last few months. But if I can concentrate on my game and play well, hopefully there'll be less talk about them and more about me."

It has helped Ross's cause, and his game, that he has been playing in the Zurich Premier-ship with Leeds Tykes for the past 14 months. He made the move from Edinburgh after returning from his record-breaking international debut to find Duncan Hodge still installed as first-choice outside-half and subsequently losing his place in the Scotland starting line-up to Townsend.

"I didn't play a professional game for two months after the Tonga match," he reflects. "That was frustrating, and disappointing. But the move to Leeds has worked well for me."

Indeed. The benefits of working with men of the calibre of Phil Davies and Jon Callard, and playing inside Braam van Straaten, were clear to see in Ross's confident displays against Italy and Ireland in August. Scotland, though, hardly had the most inspiring of send-offs, as they followed their 23-9 defeat in Cardiff with a 29-10 loss at home to the Irish.

They did, however, play their final warm-up Test without Bryan Redpath, Scott Murray, Tom Smith, Jason White and Bruce Douglas, and their retiring coach is maintaining a bold front in public. "I don't think we'll be in bad shape by the time the real stuff comes around," McGeechan says.

McGeechan makes way as coach for Matt Williams at the end of the tournament and it would qualify as a last hurrah, before his move up the Murrayfield stairs to become the SRU's director of rugby, if he could guide his team of limited talents safely through a pool which includes France and the big-hitting Fijians. The Scots have never failed to reach the quarter-final stages of a World Cup.

"That's right," Gordon Ross says. "We've always made it that far. Hopefully, this year we can do the same - and maybe take another step forward."

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