Scotland omit Hilton and await IRB ruling

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The Independent Online

David Hilton has been down on his uppers before; during one depressing period in the early 1990s, his career was in free-fall to the extent that Bath considered him worthy only of a place in their third-string front row.

The future looks really bleak this time, though. Hilton, the Bristol-born prop at the centre of the latest eligibility rumpus to hit rugby's beleaguered Celtic community, was yesterday omitted from Scotland's Six Nations squad to face the Grand Slam-chasing English at Murrayfield on Sunday week.

Worse still, his chances of resuming a Test career already 41 caps old were effectively spiked by Stephen Baines, the chief executive of the International Rugby Board, who publicly declared that Hilton was, in his view, ineligible to play for Scotland and that his position was a matter of urgent concern to the governing body. "Selection to play for your country is the highest honour you can achieve in any sport," Baines said, "and if players are selected on the basis that they qualify, it is obviously a serious breach if it is then found they are not eligible. That is particularly the case in a professional era, where players are paid large sums of money to represent their country."

The Scots had initially offered Hilton their full support after it transpired that his grandfather Walter had been born in Bristol rather than Edinburgh. Bill Watson, the chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, described Hilton as "an honourable man whose commitment to Scotland is beyond reproach", and said that the SRU considered him available for selection. That stance changed overnight. When Ian McGeechan, the national coach, announced a 21-man squad yesterday, Hilton's name was conspicuous by its absence. The 22nd spot is still open to him, but he will need IRB clearance to take it up - something he is unlikely to receive if Baines is as good as his word.

In hindsight, it was always probable that one big international fish would slip through the Scottish net; after all, no fewer than 16 of the players named in the Test and "A" squads for the recent fixtures with France were born outside of the country. Apart from the "Kilted Kiwis", whose backgrounds have been well documented and whose papers have been lodged with the IRB since the scandal first broke in Wales almost a fortnight ago, there are the likes of Budge Pountney, who qualifies because his grandmother was born in the Channel Islands, and Tom Smith, the Lions prop who hails from that well-known Scottish city, London. Mattie Stewart comes from Dartford, Stuart Reid from Kendal and Simon Holmes from Workington.

IRB delegates will deal with the Hilton issue at their annual meeting in Dublin next week as part of a wide-ranging debate on the entire eligibility pantomime. "There are sweeping powers available," Baines said. "The board could warn or fine the unions involved and could even reverse the scores of previous matches, although I do not think it likely that they will look backwards because of the major complications it would cause." That, at least, will come as some relief to the Scottish Grand Slam side of 1990, who prevailed over England at Murrayfield with the help of one or two "Scots" who would have struggled to tell a kilt from a grass skirt.

Doddie Weir, born in Edinburgh and therefore a 24-carat Scot, joined Hilton on the outside yesterday; McGeechan omitted the 1997 Lion from the tight forward ranks in favour of Northampton's Richard Metcalfe, the 7ft, 19st lock from Leeds (well, it's near Scotland). However, most interest will surround Scotland's mis-firing back division, where the gifted Chris Paterson may be moved from full-back to outside-half.

There was considerable activity on the Six Nations selection front yesterday, not least in England where Clive Woodward recalled Phil Vickery of Gloucester to the red rose squad at the expense of the uncapped Saracen, Julian White. Officially, Vickery is still concussed as a result of a head injury suffered in the early stages of his club's Premiership match with Northampton at Kingsholm almost a fortnight ago. However, Woodward's favourite tight head will be available for the Calcutta Cup match and is likely to replace Darren Garforth, who filled in against Italy in Rome last weekend.

Woodward eschewed the opportunity to recall his World Cup captain, Martin Johnson, who is now back at full throttle after serious problems with an Achilles tendon. The coach is adamant that until he sees a vintage performance from Johnson at sub-Test level, he will not break up the Garath Archer-Simon Shaw axis that has served England well throughout the tournament. Johnson has played a Premiership match at Bedford and an England A match in L'Aquila, but has yet to tear up trees in sufficient quantities.

The Irish have pulled Jeremy Davidson, Johnson's second row partner in the Lions' victory over South Africa three years ago, back into their squad for the visit of Wales tomorrow week. He replaces Paddy Johns, who committed the cardinal sin of being binned during a spell as replacement in Paris last Sunday.