Scotland take treble chance

Life after Hastings: Owen Slot talks to the three players whose specialist skills will be replacing a singular talent
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The Independent Online
SIXTY-ONE caps, numerous points records, a haul of 104 points in the last World Cup alone - Gavin Hastings was always going to be a hard man to replace. So Scotland have got three men to do the job. Full- back, goal-kicker and captain - three different players are now in place to do the work of one.

When Scotland play Western Samoa at Murrayfield on Saturday, they will break the sort of new ground that all teams are forced into at some stage in their development - the territory that must be covered without the leader and match-winner on whom they have come to rely. In Scotland, in recent times, the end of Andy Irvine's career, after 10 years at full- back, mirrors most exactly Hastings's retirement.

Scotland have also had to endure the simultaneous disappearance of whole units. The 1990 Grand Slam-winning back row - Finlay Calder, John Jeffrey and Derek White - all retired within a single year and likewise, the dominant Scottish half-back partnership of the Eighties, Roy Laidlaw and John Rutherford.

Not that the disappearance of talismanic figures necessarily presages doom. Andy Irvine begat Peter Dods, an influential figure himself, and within two years the Scots had another Grand Slam. But what came after Rutherford was a void, filled temporarily by Richard Cramb and Andy Ker without distinction.

David Johnston, the new Scotland coach, believes that there is no such void this time round. "I think we're better placed to cope with the departure of such a man than in the past," he said. And that is not just the vote of confidence you would expect from a coach in his new men - in this case Rob Wainwright, the new captain, Michael Dods, the Northampton winger who will take the kicking duties, and Rowen Shepherd, of Melrose, who will play full-back.

"The set-up has changed in the last 18 months," Johnston said. "We have a squad of 46 and a lot of competition for places. I'm not saying we don't need an inspirational captain, but at times in the past the captain has assumed so much importance, particularly because of deficiencies elsewhere, that it has become almost unbearable. I think we have a higher standard of players now than at other times, so it should be easier for Rob.

"I don't think there's an issue with the captain, but in the playing context, if someone with 61 caps goes, then whoever you bring in won't have an awful lot of experience. While Shepherd, for instance, did a sound job for the A-team last season, that's as much as he's been able to do.

"Gavin, though, did not become a world-class player overnight," Johnston said, and then stopped and remembered Hastings' debut, in 1986 against France, a match he played in himself. "Well, he kicked the six penalties which won the game. Maybe he did."

The captain: Rob Wainwright

I'm taking

over a

better side

I'M not really thinking about the captaincy from the point of view of replacing Gavin - people say there are big shoes to be filled and that sort of thing, but I think there's enough pressure in the job I'm taking without worrying about that. Gavin, you must remember, had difficult phases in his career. He had a long run of defeats to get through; hopefully I won't have that. I'm lucky, though, in that the side I'm taking over I think is better than the one that he took over as captain. We've probably now got the most exciting young back division that Scotland has had in a long time.

Gavin rang me up to congratulate me, but we speak fairly regularly anyway because we're mates. But I haven't gone to him for advice, though that's not saying that I won't do. There are certain things you can get advice on - who to thank at the post-match dinner, that sort of thing! - but I really think the captaincy is something I'm going to have to evolve into. You can't try to be like another captain; you can't really say what sort of a captain you want to be. I haven't even thought yet what I'll be saying in the changing-room before the match because that depends on how preparation goes in the build-up to it. On the field, though, there are aspects - motivational properties, tactical properties - that I will obviously be thinking about as the game approaches.

I haven't captained an awful lot recently. I captained Scotland B and the Penguins and the Baa-baas on tour, but apart from that it's back to schooldays. I have, though, been pack leader on and off over the last year and a half and so it is just a question of spreading my responsibility a bit further. But as you become a more senior member of the team, as the players above you drop off, you take on more responsibility anyway.

The coaches have also been helping me at the helm by giving me as much responsibility as possible in training sessions. That'll help me more when it comes to captaining on the actual day.

The full-back: Rowen Shepherd

I was able

to play my

own game

I SPOKE to Gavin last week. Melrose were playing his side, Watsonians, and he actually congratulated me on my call-up in the middle of the game. I had another quick chat with him at the end of the match and I may just give him a call this week - just to see what he can pass on.

I think I'm a similar full-back in certain aspects. I feel my defence is my strength and I'm confident under the high ball. I'm certainly not trying to be like Gavin or anything, but the team are trying to expand so I'll be expected to be up and involved which I suppose will be similar to the way he played. I'll be trying to put my wingers away as much as possible and after a while, maybe see what's available to me.

This is something that David Johnston encouraged when he was Scotland A coach last year. He wanted people to have a go and he encouraged me to get up in attack and if anything loose came my way, to counter-attack. I was doing that increasingly as the season progressed.

Having the full season with Scotland A last year certainly helped. It helped in that there was no expectation of ousting the player in my position in the senior side - in this case, obviously, Gavin. Because I was not going to displace him - barring injury, that is - I was under no pressure and that helped me find my feet at that level and let me play my own game.

I was totally thrilled to be picked. I'd been injured for a couple of weeks, so I hadn't got my hopes up. I started the season reasonably well, I was fitter than ever and I was working in club sessions with the club coach Rob Moffat who has helped me with my punting. Unfortunately, though, I played in the game against Edinburgh Accies when I was ill, I had flu; and I pulled a hamstring. I struggled to get back from that but I think I'm hitting my best again now. Which I suppose is good timing with the Western Samoans just a week away.

The place-kicker: Michael Dods

I'm used

to all the

pressure

TO me, there's no extra pressure because of the fact that it's Gavin I'm taking over from. I've now got the job to do, so it's up to me to go out there and put them over. I know that both Craig Chalmers and Rowen Shepherd can kick but hopefully they'll not be needed. I'm not even going to be thinking about that option because it's negative to think 'If I start missing them it doesn't matter because I've got Craig and Rowen here.'

I've had the pressure on me before anyway, having played for Otago in New Zealand in the summer.The stakes are so high there and they place so much more emphasis on goal-kicking that the pressure is immense. My first game was the local derby at home against Southlands and there were 25,000 people there, 20,000 of whom were Otago supporters thinking 'Who the hell's this guy on the wing?' and as it was in the papers that I'd been brought in for my kicking, the pressure rose right away. Thankfully it went well - I got six out of eight kicks and a try.

I don't actually think it's a problem that I'm not the front-line kicker at Northampton and I knew that Paul Grayson was in place as the first choice when I arrived here from Gala. So recently I've just been carrying on in the rhythm and doing the practice, and hopefully it should make no difference. The main person I have been speaking to is Dougie Morgan, the ex- Scotland coach, who has taken on the role of helping with the kicking. He's been really helpful, videoing me and deconstructing my technique. I've also spoken to my brother [Peter, who has 23 Scotland caps as goal- kicking full-back] too.

When I was at Gala he was coach and used to make me stay after training to hit 30 on the trot and if I missed one then I'd have to start again. For Saturday, though, he hasn't actually said 'Go out and do this or that.' He knows the situation; he knows that from now on it's a personal thing.

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