Rugby Union: Return of the natives with attitude

Scotland have dipped into Gloucester's reserves for the open-side flanker they hope will help to stifle the game of England's recalled No 10 in the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham today. Chris Hewett spoke to them both; Smith to deliver message; Grayson given a new script

Chris Hewett
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:01
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Rob Wainwright regards him as his closest ally, the man he automatically turns to when "we're in the last 20 minutes of a game, something needs to be said and I'm too knackered to open my mouth". Much to the relief of Scotland's captain, it is at moments of crisis that Ian Smith stands up to be counted.

Which is pretty ironic when you come to consider it. Smith's rich experience of life among the mud and bullets of top-flight Courage League rugby may be good enough for an international side who reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup less than two years ago and very nearly marched off with a Grand Slam last season, but is transparently not good enough for Gloucester. Unsung, unsophisticated and downright unsuccessful as they may be, the Cherry and Whites would sooner pick dead leaves from the gutter than pick their former skipper.

"Don't ask me what's going on, ask Richard Hill," Smith said this week. In fact, he will be doing the asking himself as soon as he gets back to Kingsholm on Monday and Hill, the former Bath and England scrum-half who is in charge of playing matters in what remains one of the most passionate rugby hotbeds in Britain, can expect a few cards to appear on the table.

It has been an awkward, not to say dispiriting, season for Smith, a 31- year-old civil engineer who earned his sporting spurs in the ruggedly hard school of the Gloucester Combination: Longlevens, dedicated advocates of the "ask no questions, take no prisoners" philosophy, were his junior club and there are plenty of regulars in the Longford Road clubhouse who have taken almost personal offence at the marginalisation of their illustrious old boy.

"I played four or five league and Anglo-Welsh Cup matches back in September and then. . . well, nothing. I just couldn't get a run in the first team. When I did get another chance in the Pilkington Cup tie with Leeds in December, I dislocated my thumb just at the point where it connects with the wrist. I stayed on, of course - I'd waited long enough to play so I wanted to make the most of it - but it kept me out of Scotland's game with Wales a fortnight back."

A good one to miss, as it turned out. Smith, who qualifies for the Scots through his paternal grandparents, was restored to the side at the first available opportunity as the national selectors, predictably, reacted fiercely to a Murrayfield performance of depressing ineptitude, riddled as it was with more unforced errors than a Sunday morning mixed doubles in the local park.

"We've got to perform at Twickenham, because two straight defeats in a four-match championship means curtains. We know what people say about our forward strength - that England will take us to the cleaners again this year, just as they did on Grand Slam day last March - but as far as I'm concerned we've all been picked for this game on the basis that we are good enough to play at international level. Our job is to go out there and show some confidence in our own ability.

"It will be a hard game, of course - they're all hard these days - but I'm just hoping that all the rest I've had this year, frustrating though it may have been, will stand me in good stead. It's a double-edged sword, not playing for weeks on end: on the one hand you're bitterly upset at not being out there; on the other your appetite is getting sharper with each passing week.

"I feel very focused for this one. I don't go in for all that anti-English stuff - Culloden and the blue shirt and the rest of it. What I do rate is some cool, calm analysis of what has to be done as a prelude to going out and doing it. I haven't had much good fortune at Twickenham - two appearances, two stuffings - but I've never played there for Scotland and it would be nice to turn things around today."

Capped 20 times since his debut against England at Murrayfield in 1992, Smith's know-how should be invaluable against the old country's debutant open-side, the "other" Richard Hill. "Yes, experience counts for a lot at the top end of the game, but Richard and I have faced each other on a couple of occasions now and I think we know what to expect from each other.

"He's come on a fair bit since I first ran up against him. He's a big lad and he used to be something of a bosher, but he started to bring a lot more variety to his game over the last year or so. It should be interesting."

Hill speaks of Smith with equal respect. "I expect Ian to be very hard work, especially when the ball is on the ground. I'd rather not be drawn into that sort of battle but I'm aware that the time will come when I'll have to compete with him at the centre of the battle. He's got a lot of big games behind him and I couldn't really ask for a sterner test."

Imagine, if you can, an A30 road protester riding rough- shod over the English countryside at the wheel of a JCB. Now try to picture Paul Grayson, the England outside-half, putting Scotland to the sword with a sidestepping, try-scoring display of mesmer- ising attacking bravado. According to Gray- son's detractors - and there are many - the former scenario is by far the more likely.

Grayson has more critics than O J Simpson has defence lawyers. Heaven knows, he is not the first kicking outside-half to wear his country's No 10 shirt - two years ago, Rob Andrew right-booted the Scots into an early grave without a murmur of dissent from the Twickenham faithful - but for whatever reason, the mood in the stands has changed from a particularly smug glorification of the pragmatic to a vociferous impatience with no- frills, no-thrills rugby - even if it turns out to be winning rugby.

The received wisdom is that Grayson is a one-dimensional points machine whose ability to kick like a donkey is compromised by the suspicion that he would struggle to run past the same animal on Weymouth sands. Today, on his return to the England side, he comes eyeball to eyeball with his Northampton club colleague Gregor Townsend, who just happens to be the most inventive and least orthodox stand-off in Britain. Sod's law strikes again.

"I play alongside Gregor week in, week out and I can honestly say that I haven't a clue what he will do out there this afternoon," the 25-year- old Lancastrian admits with a wry smile. Which, of course, adds fuel to the fires of scepticism. You wouldn't catch Gregor saying that about Paul, would you?

But Grayson, who kicked his country to the 1996 Five Nations title before being dumped in favour of Mike Catt for the early matches of the current campaign, is quite obviously a more rounded playmaker than he is given credit for. Ian McGeechan, the Northampton coach, believes last season was a prime example of England restricting the player rather than the other way round.

"I'd like to think England will give Paul the platform to express his complete range of skills," said the Scot, showing commendable even-handedness in advance of a Calcutta Cup match that could easily consign his own countrymen to Five Nations oblivion. And as if on cue, Grayson believes the pendulum has swung in his favour.

"I've got a new brief," he said yesterday. "After last year, I suppose people were justified in suggesting I had only one string to my bow. But you have to take account of the circumstances: we went to Murrayfield to play a Scottish side who were 80 minutes from a Grand Slam, our own season was on the line, Dean Richards was back and we decided to play a constricted but very effective game.

"I'd like to think we're in a position to introduce more variety this time. That is not to say I intend to throw every ball out wide and spend all afternoon running after Jon Sleightholme and Tony Underwood, but I do intend to jumble things up within the broad framework of our agreed approach. And yes, you do need a framework. There is absolutely no point in going on to the pitch without a clear idea of what you're trying to achieve; to do so would be to leave yourself open to confusion and any harum-scarum stuff would benefit the Scots, not us."

A hard nut, Grayson. A former semi-professional footballer with Accrington Stanley, there is more than a touch of the truly, madly, deeply about his competitive spirit. He possesses the priceless capacity to slam the mental door on life's little irrelevances - a hostile home crowd, for instance - and concentrate on impressing the right people. "I want to do the right things in the eyes of the selectors," he says with quiet self-assurance. "I'm not too worried about anyone else.

"As for handling the pressure, I think this championship will be very different from last season's. It was so new to me a year ago, all the hype and media attention. This time, I know what's what. It should be far easier to focus entirely on what I'm here to do."

Not that he made such a bad fist of things first time out. Fifty-four points from an England total of 69 tells its own story; almost faultless against the French in Paris, he made every bit as important a contribution as Richards to the Murrayfield victory without receiving a zillionth of the praise, and he rounded things off with 23 points against the Irish as his team sneaked the championship spoils on the back of a French defeat in Cardiff.

Will a repeat performance be good enough this time? Unfair as it may sound, probably not; England cannot hope to score three tries in four matches and escape with their collective reputation or their current hierarchy intact. But if Paul Grayson is still in place when the Red Rose takes on the Red Dragon in Cardiff next month, half a dozen penalties and a snappy drop goal will do very nicely, thank you. There is not an Englishman alive who would quibble with that.

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