In a dramatic move Mark McKenzie, the Scotland A international stand-off, is returning to French rugby only six months after joining Glasgow Caledonian Reds.

The Reds announced yesterday McKenzie had been released from his contract with them

for ''personal reasons'' while it emerged in France he had signed a two and a half year contract with second division side Nice.

''When Mark asked to be allowed to go back to France we seriously considered his request and, reluctantly, agreed to release him from the end of this month,'' said Richie Dixon.

Speculation connecting McKenzie's departure with his failure to command a regular place in the Reds starting line-up since his return to Scotland after two successful years with French club Bourgoin will be inevitable.

However, while Dixon refused to elaborate on those ''personal reasons'' it seems they are the only reason, the player having established a long-term relationship with a girlfriend while at Bourgoin. ''I must say Mark has matured in the time I have known him and he was keeping his rugby and his personal life apart,'' Dixon explained.

''I couldn't criticise his attitude at training in any way and, although there was a short time when he was out of the squad recently, he was back on the bench for us against Neath last weekend and would have been there again on Wednesday if our game with Edinburgh Reivers had gone ahead.''

Indeed, having worked with McKenzie since he was a junior at Stirling County when Dixon was coaching at Bridgehaugh a decade ago, the coach's priority has been to keep the 29-year-old in the game. That has been achieved with McKenzie's new deal seeing him reunited with Michel Couturas, his former Bourgoin coach, the man charged with getting Nice back to French rugby's top flight.

''We have been discussing the situation for about a month since Mark first approached us and I wanted to be sure that he could get things sorted out in France,'' said Dixon.

Dixon's is very much a compassionate approach to coaching to the extent he sometimes seems overly concerned with player welfare when others might take a tougher line in the immediate interests of the team.

Certainly he would appear to have helped resolve McKenzie's personal problems at the Reds expense, particularly since Craig Chalmers, the most experienced stand-off on their books, is currently on loan to English club Harlequins.

Releasing McKenzie would appear to leave the Reds dangerously exposed in a key position, yet Dixon noted that even before Chalmers is due to return at the end of January, there is experienced cover in the shape of Rowen Shepherd, the versatile internationalist and Jon Stuart, capped at A level last season before becoming one of the

victims of the eligibility row.

Furthermore, the coach believes that from adversity a major opportunity will emerge for a player who recently hit the headlines after a bizarre international call up. Having joined the Reds on the back of one or two highly promising appearances for London Scottish two seasons ago, Barry Irving's progress had been very low profile until he was suddenly called into the Scotland squad last month.

The timing was all the more remarkable since he had started only one match for the Reds this season, at full-back on the day of their early season league defeat at Caerphilly.

''When one door closes another one opens up and this gives us a real opportunity to get young Barry more heavily involved,'' said Dixon.

Irving, though, is not among the 30 Reds man squad registered to play in next month's European Cup ties, while Shepherd has hardly featured over the past month and Stuart has re-established himself in the No.12 jersey since returning from a serious shoulder injury.

That, then, places added pressure on Tommy Hayes, the often brilliant, but notoriously erratic Cook Islands internationalist.

''Tommy has been playing particularly well for us recently,'' Dixon said. ''I have spoken to him about his performances and he is beginning to play a lot more consistently.

''It is unfortunate all ways round that he cannot qualify, for Scotland because he was capped by the Cook Islands at the wrong time, by about two and a half months. When World Cup qualification comes around he may well get the chance with the Cook Islands again, but he

is very much focussing on the Reds and establishing himself as the best player he can possibly be with us.''

It seems ironic that, having apparently proved something of a point after being overlooked for a contract when four districts evolved into two professional teams in 1998, homegrown McKenzie did not feel the same way.

His hope must be that, with his private life back on track, he can recapture the form which saw him score 23 points in Scotland A's epic 38-34 win over France earlier this year.