Roy Laidlaw, the Lions scrum-half from Border country who contributed handsomely to Scotland's last victory at Twickenham 20 years ago, says his country cannot hope to wrestle the Calcutta Cup from England more than once in a blue-shirted moon without substantial government support. The way Clive Woodward was talking yesterday, the Scots will need more than a devolved parliament on their side this weekend. They will need the Almighty, plus a few of his more resourceful cherubim and seraphim.
Asked whether he believed England had missed the likes of Martin Johnson, Jason Leonard, Neil Back, Ben Cohen and Jason Robinson in the unsatisfying victory over Italy 12 days ago – 260-odd caps' worth of experience, now safely back in the red rose loop for the penultimate round of the Six Nations' Championship – the coach gave a shrug and replied: "That hypothetical stuff doesn't interest me. They weren't there against Italy, but we won the game – and the point is to win games irrespective of who is playing. If Jonny Wilkinson gets injured, I am confident we will win with Paul Grayson at outside-half. If not Paul, then someone else. We proved in Argentina last year that we have people capable of stepping up to the plate."
All of which dovetailed neatly with Laidlaw's pessimistic view of the union world – a world in which the Scots have barely enough players to fill a plate, let alone step up to one. "English rugby is so strong," said the little maestro from Jedforest, who now works for the Scottish Rugby Union as programme manager for the national seven-a-side and under-21 squads. "The playing field was fairly level in the amateur days, but the professional game has helped them more than other countries. We always said that if England got their structure right, they would be impressive. That has happened. They now have academies developing players very quickly, and they have funding from the Lottery.
"For our part, we have only a small pool of players and no governmental emphasis on sport to help us make the most of our resources. It is a constant struggle, because we do not have the funding or the infrastructure. Changes need to happen at government level before the athletic talent begins to come through."
While the Scots have five forwards – Tom Smith, Gordon Bulloch, Scott Murray, Jason White and Simon Taylor – who are perfectly capable of stacking up against their opposite numbers this weekend, the return of England's quintet of Lions cannot have made them feel any better about their trip to a stadium where they have leaked 40 points on two of their last three visits. To make matters worse, Woodward insists he is not risking a thing by playing Leonard, his centurion prop, fresh from the physio's couch.
The Harlequins prop tore a hamstring in the early stages of last month's victory over France and was confidently expected to miss the rest of the tournament. But his progress, aided by the odd pint of best if the coach is to be believed, has been far more rapid than anyone had a right to expect. "I think his mates in The Sun pub know as much as I do about his magical powers of recovery," Woodward laughed. "I trust Jason implicitly. If he says he's fit, he's fit."
Over on mainland Europe, the Italians have confirmed the absence of their most powerful centre, Cristian Stoica, from Sunday's intriguing match with France in Rome. The former Gloucester midfielder, now with Castres, suffered a thigh injury during the defeat by Ireland. The French also have their problems, with four players – the props Sylvain Marconnet and Olivier Milloud, the loose forward Imanol Harinordoquy and the outside-half Gerald Merceron – suffering from stomach complaints. With Aurelien Rougerie, the high-class Montferrand wing, struggling from a leg injury, the selectors have delayed their team announcement.
Meanwhile, Newcastle have confirmed the departure of their former head coach, Steve Bates, following a restructuring of the back-room staff in January. Bates was given the sop of a technical analyst's job when Rob Andrew, the director of rugby, decided to share the coaching duties with Andrew Blades, the World Cup-winning Wallaby prop.
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