Rugby: Malta call would cap Bartolo's battle back from serious injury

Just as Scotland's rugby players are returning - hopefully in triumph - from the World Cup in New Zealand later this year, an Edinburgh club stalwart will be aiming to hop aboard the international merry-go-round for some unfinished business at Test level.

Finally cleared to resume full training two years after playing his last match, for Malta against Croatia, Murrayfield Wanderers scrum-half and captain James Bartolo, 26, is setting sights on adding to his cap haul against Latvia and Lithuania in European Nations Cup matches scheduled for October/November. Back in 2009 Bartolo's rugby fortunes could not have been more contrasting when, in his first training session after making a debut start for Malta away to Croatia in a World Cup qualifier, he seriously damaged knee ligaments on the Murrayfield back pitches.

"I absolutely blew my knee apart and to begin with it was thought I'd pulled a medial ligament and underwent the usual 12 week recovery programme," says Bartolo. "However, just as I was returning, it was realised I'd done much more severe damage to the cruciate ligament."

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Now, thanks in part to Edinburgh surgeon John Keating, Bartolo is ready to take a full part in pre-season training with a view to not only helping Wanderers who have recruited players including Stewart's Melville centre Alex Cox, ex-Watsonian prop Dan O'Connell, former Livingston and Currie forward Colin Powley and one-time Stewart's Melville and Heriot's back row Ricky Simms, but regaining his international place.

"I face a battle for the scrum-half shirt at Wanderers with Murray Johnstone, a real livewire, having done an excellent job in the past couple of seasons," he added.

"But there are plenty of incentives including getting back into the Maltese national side with whom my adventure started when, after leaving Fettes College, I went to play for Lancashire side, Fylde."

The player's father was brought up in Malta until 18 when he moved to the UK, but with Bartolo being a pretty common Maltese name he was contacted through having appeared on a team-sheet and sounded out about his eligibility to play.

He subsequently joined the squad in 2007 and after several appearances on the bench won a first start against Croatia immediately prior to my injury.

"It's been fascinating to visit some really interesting places such as Andorra where the pitch is so high up a mountain you felt you could almost touch the clouds. Also, Lithuania will be interesting opponents as they have come rocketing through the divisions on the back of a record run of victories."

In fact, Lithuania's 18th straight win, against Serbia, in April, surpassed the previous record set by New Zealand in 1965-9 and tied by South Africa in 1997-8.Other regular adversaries for Bartolo, a former Edinburgh under-18 player alongside subsequent internationalists Ben Cairns and Alan Macdonald as well as A cap David Blair, include Holland, Moldova and Poland. "For a country of 500,000 population there are six domestic teams and more players are being produced for a squad that is a real mixture including some who have played at academy level in Australia.

"We are coached by a Welshman, Damian Neill, and the main organisation is based in Bath where we tend to have international training camps before going abroad to play."

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A squad session for a team currently ranked 50th - three behind Zimbabwe who have played at a World Cup - is planned at army barracks before the next Euro tournament and by then Bartolo hopes Murrayfield Wanderers will be riding high in National League Division One.

"We have been contacted by a couple of players from New Zealand who are keen to combine playing rugby with travel and have new coaches in Bruce Aitchison and Gregor Wood.

"We finished 2009-10 with wins over Ellon and East Kilbride to maintain our current status and now we want to move forward helped by off the field enterprise including the construction of a new gymnasium in our clubhouse behind the national stadium.

"I feel particularly fortunate to be club captain at a time when there is so much going on both at Wanderers and with the Maltese team."

Indeed, with serving soldier Jack Prasaad helping out with coaching and having represented Fiji in the past it's possible Murrayfield could even field an all-international half-back pairing although ex-stand off Bruce Aitchison is registered to play as well as coach next season and could have designs on the No.?10 jersey.