Scots' cause calls Leslie to nerve centre

Kilted Kiwi is determined to show his true colours this week. Simon Turnbull tells why
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John Leslie has done it all, it would seem, on his three-year rollercoaster ride as a kilted Kiwi. He has been shunted into international action in record time, after just 11 days and one match on Scottish soil; scored the quickest try in International Championship history, 8.6 seconds into his Five Nations' debut against Wales; been lauded as the inspirational star of Scotland's Championship-winning 1999 season; had his World Cup wrecked by injury; been dismissed as a one-season wonder after returning to action too soon and captaining Scotland to defeat in Italy; and been frozen out by Rob Andrew at Newcastle Falcons. He has also, since becoming a Saint at Northampton, happily regained his influential form at international level.

The elder Leslie brother, however, has yet to play against Argentina, who present Scotland with an intriguing test at Murrayfield this afternoon. And he has yet to face New Zealand, who follow the Pumas to the home of Scottish rugby on Saturday afternoon. "That's right, yeah," Leslie mused, having been coaxed to cast his mind beyond the task at hand today towards the looming visit of the All Blacks. "It'll be very exciting for me. I'll probably be nervous and excited and I'm sure I'll prepare well – if I'm in the 22. I'll just go out there and try my hardest, and we'll go from there. I'm sure I can speak for the whole Scottish team in saying that."

With respect to the rest of Ian McGeechan's men, though, the All Blacks match will surely mean more to Leslie than it will even to the other New Zealand natives in the Scotland squad. Glenn Metcalfe and Gordon Simpson have, after all, played against the All Blacks before. Leslie will be doing so for the first time – and, as the son of a former New Zealand captain, the inside centre is certain to be the centre of attention in Edinburgh this week.

His father, Andy Leslie, led the All Blacks 10 times – including the occasion he famously described as "one of the greatest days in New Zealand swimming," when a Scotland team featuring McGeechan sank to a 24-0 defeat at a waterlogged Eden Park in 1975. The former Wellington No 8 will be at Murrayfield with his wife, Lesley, next Saturday.

"My parents are in Ireland at the moment," John said. "They're on an All Blacks' supporters' tour." The Leslies have been this way before, of course. They watched their younger son, Martin, play for Scotland in the 30-18 World Cup quarter-final defeat against the All Blacks at Murrayfield in 1999. Now Martin, like John two years ago, is on Scotland's injury list.

Times have moved on since the first All Blacks visited Scotland in 1905, when Dr Alfred Fell stood down from the Scottish team, "for reasons of loyalty and allegiance to the country of my birth"; the wing threequarter was a native of Nelson. Ninety six years on, John Leslie – from Lower Hutt, Wellington – could not disguise an ironic laugh at the suggestion that his loyalties might be divided when he faces the Haka on Saturday. "It's too late for that, mate," he said.

Leslie has not looked back since he left New Zealand in the autumn of 1998. Overlooked from a 42-man All Black training squad after a brilliant season leading Otago to the National Provincial Championship, he didn't hesitate when an invitation came from the land of his father's father. Andy Leslie senior was born in Linlithgow and played as a centre-forward for Hibernian before emigrating in the 1930s and earning six caps for the New Zealand national soccer side. Sadly, he did not live to see his grandsons play rugby for Scotland: Martin as a fine, try-foraging flanker, John as a centre of excellence, cast in the mould of the New Zealand second five-eighth.

John's class was stamped across Scotland's 32-10 win against Ireland in September: with the midfield break that set up the opening score for Budge Pountney, and with the try with which he put victory beyond doubt. It was evident eight days ago, too, throughout the 43-20 win against Tonga: with the looped pass that led to Scotland's first try, with the jinking run that prompted the second and with the auxiliary scrum-half play that launched the move for the third.

Not that Leslie is accepting any personal plaudits. "You can't afford to take too many pats on the back or too many slaps in the face," the affable, pragmatic 30-year-old said. "You do run a bit of a rollercoaster in that respect, but I try not to get involved in it too much. The important thing is that we're doing well as a team at the moment."

Indeed, Scotland line up today with an unbeaten Murrayfield record stretching back to the visit of the Wallabies a year ago. They also line up with Gregor Townsend back at outside-half, but with several key players still missing – and with a less than impressive record against Argentina. The Pumas have won three of the four full internationals played between the countries.

"It's going to be a tough game for us," Leslie said. "The Argentinians will be a huge challenge for us – without worrying about adding the All Blacks on to the task at this stage."

By six o'clock tonight, though, the challenge of the All Blacks will lie ahead for Leslie and his team-mates – a challenge the Scots have never managed to overcome. Of 23 matches against New Zealand, Scotland have drawn two and lost 21.

"Mmm, yeah," Leslie said, pondering the historical record. "We're going to go in as extreme underdogs. We can handle that. We'll go out and play our game – go for it, give it our all, and just see what happens. You never know. Sport's a great opportunity to have your day in the sun some time, isn't it?" Not usually on a November afternoon at Murrayfield, though – and with an All Black cloud hanging around the place.

Scotland: G Metcalfe (Glasgow); Cameron Murray (Edinburgh), J McLaren (Glasgow), J Leslie (Northampton), R Reid (Glasgow); G Townsend (Castres), A Nicol (Glasgow); T Smith (Northampton, capt), G Bulloch (Glasgow), M Stewart (Northampton), Scott Murray (Saracens), S Grimes (Newcastle), J White (Glasgow), J Petrie (Glasgow), A Mower (Newcastle). Replacements: S Scott (Edinburgh), G Graham (Newcastle), I Fullarton (Sale), G Simpson (Glasgow), G Burns (Edinburgh), G Ross (Edinburgh), A Henderson (Glasgow).

Argentina: I Corleto (Narbonne); G Camardon (Roma), J Orengo (Perpignan), L Arbizu (Bordeaux-Begles, capt), D Albanese (Gloucester); F Contepomi (Bristol), A Pichot (Bristol); M Reggiardo (Castres), F Mendez (Mendoza), O Hasan (Agen), I Fernandez Lobbe (Castres), R Alvarez (Perpignan), S Phelan (C.A.S.I), G Longo (Narbonne), R Martin (S.I.C.). Replacements: R Grau (Liceo), L Ostiglia (Hindu), M Ledesma (Narbonne), M Durand (Champagnat), N Fernandez Miranda (Hindu), G Quesada (Narbonne), B Stortoni (C.A.S.I).

Referee: J Jutgé (France).

Kick-off: 3.0pm.

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