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Leslie in fitness battle to lead Scots
February 1, 2000

It's all or nothing for new Scotland skipper John Leslie on Saturday when he hopes to lead his adopted country into Lloyds TSB Six Nations battle against Italy in Rome on Saturday.

Leslie completed his marathon 30-hour journey from New Zealand at lunchtime today and headed straight to the training ground, where he has three days to prove his fitness.

The inspirational centre has not played since being stretchered off with severed ligaments in the opening World Cup game against South Africa at the beginning of October.

Although he has been doing some general fitness work with tireless New Zealand flanker Josh Kronfeld in the build-up to his wedding on Saturday, he will not get his first taste of physical contact until tomorrow.

And, even though the Italians are hardly likely to provide the stiffest test for last season's Five Nations champions, Scotland coach Ian McGeechan is not willing to risk Leslie if he is less than 100% fit.

"If John is fit, he is fit to play. If not he will be left out," said McGeechan.

"He is our captain and a valuable member of the squad, so we would want him with us whatever happens.

"But as the week progresses, there will be fewer doubts and it should become fairly obvious whether he is going tomake it or not."

If he fails to prove his fitness, Leslie will probably play his first competitive game for Newcastle against Leicester at Welford Road a week on Saturday, before linking up with the national side again for the trip to Dublin to face Ireland.

Having flown from New Zealand to Edinburgh via Los Angeles, Leslie was understandably tired when he faced his first media grilling as skipper this afternoon.

His summer shorts were proof of the temperatures he had left behind but the Wellington-born son of former All Black skipper Andy declared himself confident of surviving the hot-house atmosphere of international captaincy.

After being overlooked by New Zealand despite constant calls for a full cap, Leslie turned up in October 1998 ready to take advantage of his Scottish eligibility thanks to his Linlithgow born grandfather.

In his distinctive Kiwi accent, Leslie admitted he had reservations about becoming a `foreign' skipper.

But, having received assurances from Leeds-born McGeechan, plus his father and previous captain Gary Armstrong, he accepted.

"I spoke with Ian in detail about the possible pitfalls, plus other people I respect such as Gary and my father," said Leslie. "The feedback was good and I was told to take it.

"It is a great honour for me and one that I find difficult to describe.

"I have been a little bit detached from rugby while I have been in New
Zealand but my close friends have all been very supportive and wished me
well."

Fitness permitting, Leslie will skipper Scotland on this summer's tour of New Zealand, including a Test in Dunedin, which will almost represent a home game for the former Otago Highlanders Super 12 star.

Although he is not prepared to look further ahead than Saturday's fitness battle, he admits the idea of `going home' on tour gets the pulse racing.

"I want to try and keep it on the backburner for the moment," he explained.

"But I understand the tour has been organised and it would be amazing to be part of that.

"It is a special, fantastic feeling but there is plenty of work to do before that."

Apart from Leslie, McGeechan should be selecting from strength when he names his team before departure on Thursday morning.

Leslie's brother Martin and number eight Gordon Simpson both trained today after missing matches for the Scottish Super Districts at the weekend with shoulder and chest problems respectively.

The five-strong French-based contingent all arrived in Edinburgh last night, while the only player carrying a slight knock was Saracens lock Scott Murray.

"It was nothing to do with the match at the weekend, he was just trying to jump on Budge Pountney all afternoon," smiled McGeechan.

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