How the iron man put Stewart on his mettle

A little less than two years ago, a 20-stone South African colossus with a grandfather from Dumfries appeared to be the answer to the on-going problem of Scotland's troublesome tight-head spot.

But while Matthew Proudfoot continues his struggle to regain the form and confidence of his early outings in a navy blue jersey, another leviathan who previously roamed the republic's rugby fields has been helping to smooth the rough edges of the latest cornerstone of the Scottish pack.

Mattie Stewart's return to the No3 jersey in the Stadio Flaminio today was one of the few changes that was not forced upon Ian McGeechan when he announced his squad for Rome, but it can hardly be construed as a gamble by the new coach.

As director of rugby at Northampton, McGeechan closely monitored the progress of a player he recruited to the Midlands club three years ago, the season when Stewart first came to the attention of the national selectors.

McGeechan was also responsible for bringing Garry Pagel to Franklin's Gardens. He is a formidable prop who appeared for South Africa in their World Cup final victory of 1995, although McGeechan can hardly have envisaged at that time the fringe benefits it might bring on his return to the Scotland helm.

Proudfoot has cited Pagel as the strongest scrummager he has ever played against, an observation borne out by the pummelling the Edinburgh Reivers pack took in their recent European Cup double-header against the Saints.

Stewart has been working with the former Springbok on a daily basis for a while now and he admits that, along with the Argentine hooker Freddie Mendez, Pagel has taught him the real meaning of professionalism at the top level.

"I didn't used to do as many weights as I should have, but Garry is in there three or four times a week doing a good strong work-out and doing all the right weights for a prop," he explains in his distinctive Kentish twang. "Before, I used to go in there and mill around just talking to people.

"Now I go in there and train properly and it has definitely helped my game."

If Stewart is modest enough to admit that he is fortunate in having "very good players around me making me play well", he also knows that his resurrection as an international prop this afternoon will be the subject of intense scrutiny, coming as it does nearly two years since he was awarded the last of his 12 caps.

That came as a replacement against Fiji in 1998, a summer tour Stewart admits he went on carrying a shoulder injury that ultimately required surgery and a long rehabilitation period, during which he was usurped by Proudfoot and then Paul Burnell in his unlikely Test match renaissance.

With Burnell now retired from international rugby, Proudfoot out of form and George Graham out of favour, Stewart has a golden opportunity to make the No3 jersey his own again.

"It feels like I am making my debut all over again," he said, "and I want to get one back on the Italians because I was on the losing side out in Treviso two years ago and that was a sore one."

Still a Lance Corporal physical training instructor when he won his first cap, also against Italy, in 1996, Stewart continues to work for the Army in a public relations role, something that he intends to fall back on once his rugby career is comes to an end.

At only 26 though, he should be approaching his best years as a prop and despite improvements in his loose play, he is sanguine about the unheralded demands of the role.

"I am not worried about being flash," Stewart insists. "My main role is to be a worker - to hit rucks, scrummage well and help get good line-out balls. Everything else is a bonus really."