ANDY Nicol will lead Scotland into the toughest game of the tour so far tomorrow, having enjoyed a speedy recovery from the injury he suffered against the Vikings last Friday.
Nicol’s place in the team to play the New Zealand Maori was confirmed only after he had come through the squad’s evening training session yesterday at the match venue in New Plymouth.
With two other key players, Gregor Townsend and Martin Leslie, not considered for selection because of rib and arminjuries respectively, Ian McGeechan and his assistant coaches will have been relieved to see Nicol – their most experienced scrum-half by far – prove himself able to start.
Not that they would necessarily have gone fortheir strongest side even ifeveryone had been available, as the selection of Steve Brotherstone ahead of Gordon Bulloch indicates.
"I spoke to both hookers, and to be fair to them, they should both have an opportunity of starting a game," McGeechan said. "Gordon has started two so far, and Steve hasn’t."
To an extent, the samereasoning also applies attight-head prop, where Barry Stewart has been chosen ahead of his namesake, Mattie. Yet, while Brotherstone is some way behind Bulloch in the battle to be the Test hooker, the two Stewarts would appear to be in a more close-run contest.
Further back in the pack, Ross Beattie takes over from theinjured Leslie, having won theNo8 jersey despite fiercecompetition from Jon Petrie.
Among the backs, Graham Shiel deputises for Townsend at outside centre, allowing James McLaren to continue at inside centre, where he had an encouragingly inventive game in the first half against the Vikings a week ago.
McLaren has had a frustrating tour so far, not because of anything which has happened on the pitch, but because heis fighting to be released by Bourgoin-Jallieu and signfor Glasgow Caledonians. The trouble is that unlike his team-mate Mark McKenzie whose signing for Caley was confirmed on Wednesday, McLaren still has a year left to run of his contract with the French club.
Bourgoin had always made it clear that they would seekcompensation from anyone wishing to sign McLarenbefore that contract was up,and now they appear to haveincreased the amount they are looking for.
McLaren said yesterday that the protracted negotiations had helped him stay angry, and he will need that emotion – properly channelled, of course – against a Maori team which boasts formidable talents.
Darryl Gibson, the former All Black who will be one of McLaren’s midfield opponents tomorrow, has warned that the Maori team will play a style of rugby which will test the tourists to the limit. "We like to play running rugby, and that’s our aim on Saturday night," Gibson said. "It’s part of Maori culture that everyone likes to run the ball."
Gibson’s opinion on the Scots is: "They’re good at the set-piece, but defensively they get a bit lost after a few phases."
Given the power of the Maori side, we can expect attacks of more than a few phases to be launched from the very start. Shiel in particular may betargeted by a side which won easily the last time they played Scotland – by 24-8 in late 1998.
The make-up of the Scotland side has changed substantially since then, but the challenge of playing a Maori team remains undiminished. "We know we’ve got to step everything up," McGeechan stated. "All along we’ve known this was the third biggest game of the tour. They are a very formidable team."
McGeechan added that there had been a re-examination of defence throughout the team, not just in midfield. That isunsurprising given the high number of tries leaked against both the Barbarians and the Vikings, and Scotland will need to rediscover the sort of near-impregnability they displayed against England if they are to stand much of a chance against the Maori.
Substantial use should again be made of the replacements bench, although McGeechan does not appear to have too many options among the backs. Both Shaun Longstaff and Craig Joiner are wingers who canalso play in the centre, but,with scrum-half Graeme Beveridge the only other replacement back, the cover is decidedly thin.
With only this and one other match to go before the first Test, McGeechan has little time toexperiment with differentoptions. One thing he will have to do now is give Leslie and Townsend – and probablyDerrick Lee, the other playerto have a light injury at present – some sort of a run-out during Tuesday’s game against Nelson Bays.
At the same time, the coach will have to keep his fingers crossed that none of his other principal players picks up a new knock.
Scotland (v New Zealand Maori at Rugby Park, New Plymouth, tomorrow Sat, 8.35am BST): C Paterson (Edinburgh Reivers); G Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians), G Shiel (Reivers), J McLaren (Bourgoin-Jallieu), C Moir (Northampton); D Hodge (Reivers), A Nicol (Caley); T Smith, S Brotherstone (both Brive), B Stewart (Reivers), S Murray (Saracens), R Metcalfe (Reivers), J White (Caley), R Beattie (Newcastle), G Simpson (Caley). Subs: G Bulloch (Caley), M Stewart (Northampton), I Fullarton (Reivers), J Petrie, G Beveridge (both Caley), C Joiner (Leicester), S LOngstaff (Caley).
New Zealand Maori: A Cashmore; N Berryman, D Gibson, M Mayerhofler, C Ralph; G Jackson, R Duggan; D Muir, M Parkinson, G Marsh, D Waller, P Tito, G Feek, N Hewitt (captain), J McDonnell. Subs, A Flynn, B Reihana, R Randle, H Makiri, M Cooksley, M Edwards, S McFarland.