It is not exactly with a spring in the step that Scotland hit the road in the Six Nations Championship this week. For one thing, they could hardly have been more leaden-footed when they lumbered out of their starting blocks against the new wave French at Murrayfield last Sunday. For another, they have long been the agoraphobics of the competition. As Frank Hadden, Scotland's head coach, noted yesterday in underlining what he termed a "monumental challenge" for his team in Cardiff on Saturday: "We have only won two away games in the championship, apart from in Italy, in the last 10 years of the championship."
It is surely a good thing, then, for the travel-sick Scots, that they will be heading south not just with the barley sugars but with someone for whom the green, green grass of the Principality has become a home from home. Wales might have lost one Osprey from their Twickenham XV, Warren Gatland having dropped Sonny Parker to bench duty, but Hadden has brought the starting quota for Saturday's Celtic encounter back up to 13 with the retention of Nikki Walker in his starting line-up.
Born in Aberdeen and raised in Hawick, Walker has been an Ospreylian for 18 months now. In fact, had he not become a citizen of that thriving rugby community his giant frame might still be on the international scrap heap. Capped as a raw-boned 20-year-old against Romania, South Africa and Fiji in the autumn of 2002, he was subsequently deemed surplus to Scotland requirements until he started flourishing on the wing for the Ospreys after moving from the Borders in the summer of 2006. Recalled initially as a replacement during last season's Six Nations, the 25-year-old now has 11 caps to his name. The 12th will be collected on what could be excused for seeming like a club occasion.
"It is unusual to be playing against your team-mates," Walker mused yesterday, "but I don't think it'll change anything. I'll just be focused on doing my job. Obviously, I know how good their players are. I know their strengths. But I know their weaknesses as well... I'm looking forward to it.
"I've played at the Millennium Stadium for the Ospreys in the semi-final of the EDF Cup, but I've not actually played in an international there. I'm sure there'll be a full house on Saturday. It'll be electric there after the result against England. I know what rugby means to the people down there, it's everything. I'm sure the players will have been treated like gods this week after beating England. It's a massive scalp for them. Everybody will be expecting them to beat us, but obviously we're going down there to stop that. We're going as underdogs and I think we perform better when we're in that position."
Not that Walker could be described as a canine David about to be confronted by a physically intimidating Goliath. Once hailed as "the White Lomu", the big unit of a Borderer (all 6ft 4in, 16st 12lb of him) will be in direct opposition to the shorter half of the Ospreys' "Little and Large" wing combination, the 5ft 7in Shane Williams.
"It is a daunting task, having to play against him," Walker said of the Welshman with the dancing feet. "I see him in training every day and some of the things he does are just ridiculous. He makes a lot of people look stupid, but hopefully he won't do that to me. He's a world-class player, one of the best wingers there is, but he's got weaknesses as well, like we all have."
Walker would admit that he was undermined by his own weaknesses after his initial exposure to international rugby – during which he was credited with a try in a famous 21-6 Murrayfield win against the Springboks, despite replays suggesting a failure to ground the ball. He concedes, too, that moving to Wales has brought out the best in him.
"I think I've improved," he reflected, "but I don't think I just became a good player by going down to Wales. I'm an attacking player, so winning games and being on the wing for a team like the Ospreys has obviously given me more of a chance to shine. Just being on the front foot most of the time has helped me."
Whether the Scottish Osprey can help his country put their best foot forward on Welsh soil, though, remains to be seen. It would be no small step for them.Reuse content