HEARD the one about the rugby nation with 15,000 senior players and, effectively, three provincial teams which is aiming to win the World Cup in 1999?

As you scramble around among rugby's emergent countries contemplating an answer, think again; it is Australia, whose success in lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy in 1991 was all the more remarkable in that it came from a player base as slender as Scotland's.

That is not the only similarity. Rugby is not the No.1 game in Scotland, while in Australia it trails behind League and Aussie Rules.

Perhaps it is for those reasons that the Scottish Rugby Union is scrutinising the Australian structure as it seeks to develop both district and club rugby in Scotland, but purely as stageposts to the ultimate destination - the national team.

Every member of Australia's 1991 World Cup-winning squad was drawn from two provinces, Queensland and New South Wales, and former Wallabis coach Bob Dwyer believes that was an integral part of their triumph.

Now director of rugby at Courage League Leicester, Dwyer said: ``In order to have a national team of quality you need a certain amount of players to go in the top of the hopper so you can make sure you get the required number of players to emerge from the process.''

Dwyer added: ``There is no doubt you need a filtering system which enables the selectors to see players and determine whether they can go to the next level.''

In Australia that process is through the provinces, blessed with a strong identity and, in some cases, rich heritage. New South Wales, after all, toured Scotland and played the national side at Murrayfield 20 years before the first Australian Test match against Scotland in 1947.

Dwyer has heard the arguments against district rugby. ``You know how it goes, that there's no interest and no crowd, but I disagree. I think the district system is the way to go in Scotland.

You have to have some means of pushing people to the next level.

``Unless you do, people do not respond and develop in a way appropriate to their potential or their innate ability,'' he reasoned.

Doesn't that sound a bit contradictory coming from a man employed by an English club? Dwyer has none of it. ``Leicester is a club, but it has an area of influence that encompasses four million people. There are 12 first division clubs in Sydney which has a population of four million, so let's compare like with like,'' he said.

The most startling recent development in Australian rugby has been the rise of the Australian Capital Territory, which, hitherto, had been a backwater.

Playing in the Super 12 tournament (for Southern Hemisphere provincial sides) as the ACT Brumbies, they beat both Transvaal and Auckland and, for once, the Canberra Raiders rugby league side was no longer the sole topic of conversation.

The Brumbies drafted around three-quarters of their squad from outwith the state, including Test players Ewan McKenzie from New South Wales and Troy Coker and Pat Howard from Queensland.

``The emergence of ACT was essential, because Sydney has so many people compared with the rest of the rugby population that unless some form of drafting occurred we were in danger of just losing people,'' Dwyer explained.

ACT did not have the history of a New South Wales. ``People said `they won't get support because they don't have many locals.' But they supported the team immediately because they were playing good rugby and winning.

``It was like the Canadian baseball team which won the World Series. They got the ticker-tape parade, the full works, and there was not a single local in their side,'' Dwyer recalled.

In the professional era, the arrival of ACT has been good news for the union game in Australia as it allows another province to help players on to a career path within rugby, instead of moving to league.

``That's very important. Even back in 1988 when I returned as Australian coach I started to work very aggressively to give players the feeling that the game was offering them every assistance to reach their potential, at the same time as operating within the framework of the laws,'' Dwyer said.

He will be at Bristol with his Leicester side on league business today, but wouldn't he rather be at Murrayfield in the role he relinquished last year?

The former Wallabies coach went on: ``Strangely enough, I'm not missing it very much - which I'm quite surprised about. It's impossible to say that I would not love to be doing it, because I miss the contact with the very good people, the players and the administrators around the team.

``However, I've really found a different opportunity at Leicester to do what I like doing - helping and coaching players.''

Australia may yet require Dwyer's effervescence anew.

The district system is the road to go for Scotland. You must have some means of pushing people on to the next level