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Lost for words at thought of having own Cross to bear

We were four minutes into the interview when Geoff Cross said the strangest thing.

Geoff Cross appreciates the reasons behind his selection but is eager to seize his opportunity. Picture: SNS
Geoff Cross appreciates the reasons behind his selection but is eager to seize his opportunity. Picture: SNS

So strange, in fact, so utterly, gobsmackingly un-Geofflike, that the room fell silent. And so unexpected that only a verbatim transcript could possibly convey the full force of the utterance. So here, in all its glory, is what he said: "No."

And that was it. Nothing more. No embellishment, no lengthy explanations, no rhetorical excursions into the imaginative la-la lands where Cross's thoughts generally take shape. One word, in splendid isolation. A monosyllable to boot. Truly staggering.

When my hacking days are over and I'm sitting in the parlour at Dunfilin, my cold and sparsely-furnished retirement home, I may recall this as my finest hour. Others might take pride in extracting tearful confessions from drug cheats or exposing match-fixing scandals, but few have scaled this summit of professional achievement. Geoff Cross is to brevity what Sir Clive Woodward is to humility. He doesn't do one-word answers.

The backdrop to Cross's lapse into near-Trappism was an exchange concerning matters of discipline. The Edinburgh prop's Scotland debut, against Wales in 2009, was infamously curtailed when he clattered into Lee Byrne when the full-back was in mid-air, knocked himself out and was yellow-carded as he was taken off the field on a stretcher.

Eleven days ago, Cross received his second yellow card on international duty when he impetuously knocked the ball from the hands of the Italian scrum-half at Murrayfield. Now there may have been a gap of four years and 18 Tests between the two incidents, but why let a couple of inconvenient facts get in the way of a bit of trend-spotting? Which is why I asked him if he thought he might have some issues. And why he replied as he did. "No."

But let's cut the man some slack. Before getting round to denying the suggestion that he is crippled by anger-management problems, Cross had owned up with an admission that his offence had been an act of catastrophic silliness. Granted, the game had only about 30 seconds left to run, but he wasn't for seeking absolution on that basis.

"It was really stupid," he confessed. "I slapped the ball out of the nine's hands. It was madness, absolute stupidity. I was kicking myself. I didn't get to see the referee afterwards, but I wanted to thank him reminding me not to be so stupid. At the end of a game, you can think it's all over and not bother to show a yellow, but he took the time to try and educate me. I appreciate that."

Cross tends to say these things with a cherubic smile. It only adds to his stack of oddities and contradictions that such a charming, erudite and entertaining individual should ply his playing trade in one of the most brutal, adversarial and, yes, painful positions in sport. An international tighthead experiences physical pressures far beyond the imaginations of ordinary mortals. Cross takes them all and comes out smiling.

Cross makes no bones about the fact he owes his place against Ireland this weekend to Euan Murray's refusal to play on Sundays. Yet he has still been picked ahead of Moray Low, who has been showing glimpses of his old and most obdurate form in Glasgow colours recently. "He is picked there to make sure our scrum holds," explained Scott Johnson. "He was deemed the more dominant scrummager, and we went on that alone."

Since his arrival as interim head coach, Johnson has stressed the importance of looking at the human being behind the sportsman. You can look a long way in the case of Cross, the qualified doctor, all-round clever-clogs and endlessly entertaining raconteur. Not since the era of Rob Wainwright, 15 years ago, has Scotland had a player who can wax as lyrically as he does. And as Johnson is not exactly renowned for taciturnity himself, it's no great surprise that the coach and the player get along just fine.

"I don't think I've ever coached a kid like him," laughed Johnson. "But I thoroughly enjoy his company. He's right down my alley. I come in every morning not knowing what to expect and that's a pleasant surprise in this day and age. So he's entertaining. As my dad used to say 'he's so heavenly that we're trying to find his earthly use', and I think we've found it as a tighthead prop. How's that?"

Fine by Cross. He likes the coach's way of doing things. "The things he asks you to do are almost embarrassingly simple," said the 30-year-old. "But he asks you to do them extraordinarily well. There is still a challenge in that for me, to do the simple things extraordinarily well.

"I've heard that from other coaches as a recipe for success, that the best players do the simple skills extremely well, no matter if they're tired, even if they don't have enough time, they're in pain or under whatever pressure, they still do it. If we want to perform at the highest level, which I believe we can as a squad, that's what we've got to get right. And that's what we're working on. The difference in the message from Scott is the simplicity. That's what I've noticed. He can be a bit of a philosopher but that's fine, I like that."

Cross also accepts the reality of a situation in which he is currently behind Murray in the tighthead pecking order. But he has been picked ahead of him in the past and he sees every outing as a chance to state his case again. "In the past, there are things that Euan has done better than me and that's why he's been picked," Cross said "Those are to do with getting off the ground quicker, how he rucks and how he scrummages. Until I improve on those things more than the guys getting picked ahead of me, they'll continue to be picked ahead of me. But I like being part of a meritocracy. The challenge for me is to get the most merit."

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