Prolific Tait puts forward a case for the defence

THERE is one voice being heard more in the Scotland camp and, promisingly, it is that of a man who knows how to score tries.

Alan Tait's record of 17 tries in 27 Test matches remains the most prolific return in the Scottish game and it was already in full swing when he scored twice against Romania in the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Tait is this weekend working with Frank Hadden, the head coach, and forwards chief George Graham on the finishing touches to a game-plan which he believes will enable Scotland to see off The Oaks for a 10th time in 12 meetings, and look ahead with confidence to the crucial Pool C denouement with New Zealand and Italy.

The Borderer with the Cumbrian accent is as excited as ever as he relaxes after training near Saint Etienne, and scoffs at fears that this might be the World Cup where rugby's defences finally shut the door on try-scoring at the top level and turn the sport into mind-numbing wrestling encounters. Some luminaries are again speaking about reducing team or increasing pitch sizes, so worried are they that international rugby is losing its entertainment value and, ultimately, its core funding from broadcasters.

But Tait has heard it before, in the higher echelons of rugby league. He revelled in the 13-man game, as it pushed the boundaries and won over critics, and the former centre is visibly excited now at the prospect of helping young Scottish union players follow his lead and break union defences, notably those of Romania, New Zealand and Italy in the next fortnight. Tait laughs at the suggestion he would have more luck in his former job as a roofer, finding pin-holes on a house in the dead of night than uncovering cracks in the current All Black defence.

"There's no doubt that defence is going to win the World Cup," he says. "It is the same in all sports now. I know the All Blacks made it look different against Italy last weekend, as did Australia - we've had quite a few tries so far - but all the defences will tighten up as the tournament goes on.

"Once the quarter-finals come, there won't be many chances, but rugby at the top level should be difficult - that's what punters want. But what we also have to give them is better attacking rugby. We have to give more thought to it and find more ideas to crack them.

"I think this World Cup is going to be very exciting as we get to the knockout stages and the guys who can break the defences will be the superstars of the tournament. Like the goal-scorers, the Henrys or McFaddens, in football, the try-scorers are going to become bigger heroes in rugby because there won't be as many of them. I don't think that's a bad thing; it's just the game changing and evolving, and you've got to move with it."

Tait started out in senior rugby as a skinny youngster with Kelso, made his debut in the first Rugby World Cup and after just eight consecutive appearances stunned everyone by quitting to take up rugby league. The switch was borne of a childhood move from the Borders to Workington by a father gifted at league and a deep-seated desire to follow the dad he idolised. Tait dreamt of one day playing at Wembley, in the Challenge Cup final, from where Alan senior would return with friends every year and share memories with 'young Alan'.

He achieved the dream, twice playing for Leeds at Wembley and, in one of 16 Great Britain appearances, also featured in a World Cup final there, where he was only just denied the match-winning try against Australia in the dying minutes by an opponent's arm underneath the ball. Then rugby union turned professional and he was wanted north of the Border again.

He joined Newcastle in 1996 along with George Graham, his fellow assistant in the current Scotland set-up, and was restored to Scotland's midfield the following year, at the age of 32. He scored for the British and Irish Lions on their successful tour of South Africa and tries flowed - he notched an incredible 13 in 19 Tests, in under three years, before retiring at the end of the 1999 World Cup.

So, he knows how to find the try-line. Matt Williams didn't rate him and cast Tait out in 2004, but Hadden brought him back into the national fold the following year. It is testament to the head coach that he not only identified Tait's potential as a coach, but has helped nurture it to the point where the pair are now working almost hand-in-hand in shaping Scotland's defence and attack.

"I like how our squad is developing," says Tait. "We are unleashing a few players who can open up the tightest defences. Rory Lamont has shown us in the last three games that he is a world-class finisher and his brother is the same. Rob Dewey, when he goes for it, is as good as any centre at scoring tries.

"Tuesday will be a real test of our attacking sharpness because Romania are well organised, as all teams are now, and we'll have to step up a gear. People complained that we weren't flying against Portugal, but we want to have a few gears to go up as the bigger games come around. We'll step it up against Romania and, as the All Blacks come around and the huge match with Italy follows, we'll need to improve even more."

As he works out how to make the most of the current crop of internationalists, Tait is also keen to work with Hadden and Scotland's pro team and age-grade coaches on developing the next generation into more effective defenders and try-scorers.

"Rugby league has helped to build the defences we have in union now so I think we need to look more at league to learn how to break them down. In league, they've worked hard on footwork and running lines and that's something we've been slow in union to pick up.

"It's tight now and you need good feet to expose little gaps. It's not about going through phases anymore, and we have to learn these skills in Scotland from a much earlier age. I'm trying to explain to the boys here how to think intuitively about where attacks are headed, when they see Nathan Hines or Rory getting the ball. They should want to be on his shoulder because they know they'll get the ball.

"It's not easy to coach because it's about anticipating what's ahead. I remember scoring for Scotland at Twickenham when the attack broke off from our half down the right touch. I took a line down the middle because I felt the attack had to come back across at some stage, and when it did I was on my own to get the pass and go over at the posts.

"You watch New Zealand - they have players all working on anticipating what's going to happen. I found myself applauding them against Italy because it was just so good. The wingers seemed to pop up on players' shoulders every time a half-break was made. They must have been floating but anticipating where the breaks would come and, of course, they know all their team-mates are capable of off-loading well. That's where the tries will come now and so these skills are the future."

Tait played against Romania twice, in his first and last years in Test rugby, but he has great respect for the nation's ability to retain a passion for rugby through and since the bloody 1989 revolution, which claimed the life of Florica Murariu, the flanker and captain who scored twice against Scotland in the 1987 match.

"Romania have a real pride in themselves and they will be a big test for us at Murrayfield next week," he says. "They were a fairly formidable team in the first World Cup, but we have the quality to beat them as well now as we did then. In that first World Cup we played some good rugby together - we came together as a team pretty quickly - and that's what I'm hoping from these boys next week because we need to start hitting our straps."