IN his last international, Craig Joiner was confronted by the

ultimate physical challenge for any back playing rugby.

In Saturday's Royal Bank international against South Africa, Joiner, recalled to the Scotland side yesterday to win his eighteenth cap, will be faced by a different yet equally challenging proposition.

For Jonah Lomu, read Pieter Rossouw, who equalled South Africa's try-scoring record in a game last month.

It is a task to which Joiner is determined to rise. ''I think some people seriously consider my selection as a backward step,'' he reflected after his interrogation from the bulk of the press corps.

''James Craig and Kenny Logan are seen as the guys of the future. I do not see it that way,'' he said.

It was encouraging to hear him in such combative mood. He is, after all, only 23. Yet during much of his international career he has endured a whispering campaign as doubters have continuously asked is he good enough.

Scotland's 1996 victory against France should have sidelined his detractors. It did not. Come June of that year and the first Test of Scotland's New Zealand tour, he was renewing acquaintances with Lomu.

During the World Cup in South Africa, Joiner was perhaps the only wing to emerge with some credit from his tussle with the giant New Zealander. At any rate, he did not suffer an Underwoodesque nightmare.

Lomu was so impressed as to stress before the Carisbrook match that his priority was to ''coat-hanger'' Joiner, a rather evocative euphemism for the sort of tackling that is mandatory in New Zealand.

Joiner and Lomu traded try for try that day but Lomu's influence elsewhere helped New Zealand to a 62-31 victory.

''I really felt I had produced a performance in that French game at Murrayfield which merited keeping my place. Having been dropped in New Zealand, I was determined to get back into the side, but, through injury, I did not play much rugby between August and January last season and that was frustrating, because I really did not have a chance of winning a recall,'' Joiner said.

He did play 17 games for his new club, Leicester, including their Pilkington Cup triumph. He had enlisted at Welford Road from Melrose, where he was a key figure in four Scottish championship successes.

The games at Leicester, however, occurred at a time when the Five Nations' Championship was all but complete. His international rehabilitation, therefore, began on the Scotland XV's summer tour of southern Africa which he finished as leading try-scorer, notching a hat trick in the victory against Zimbabwe and a decisive score in the 33-22 success against Northern Transvaal, the tour's high point.

Joiner feels his game has benefited from the intense competition for places at Leicester. ''It's an added battle just to get in the first team given that the Fijian internationalists, Vunibaka and Serevi, Leon Lloyd, and the England and British Lions player Austin Healey have all been contenders for wing berths,'' he explained.

Joiner has also been fielded at centre, an experience which was not novel as he had been deployed there during his Scottish Schools caps as a product of Dunfermline High and Merchiston Castle.

''As a player you are trying to find an edge. I think of myself firstly and foremostly as a winger. But I never say no to playing centre because there is so much more exposure all in hand and so many more different questions are asked,'' he affirmed.

He believes it has sharpened the defensive aspects of his game though those who saw him in his debut international series in 1994 nail Argentina's live-wire winger Martin Teran, have never been overly worried about his capacity to handle rugby's rough and tumble.

Joiner acknowledged that the role of the winger has changed over the last few years, just as the expectation from the Scottish public of a successful team has mushroomed.

''When I played in the 1995 Five Nations' Championship, I received less than 10 passes. Looking at the number of possessions I received in 1996, it was more. The game is changing,'' he emphasised.

Joiner, with three international tries to his credit, is in the last year of his contract with Leicester and confesses to being unsure as to what will be his next career move.

''I have not spoken to Leicester about it and I would like to think they would be keen to keep me but it's not a subject to which I will give much thought until about the end of the Five Nations' Championship. If I were to stay in England it would not be for much longer. My roots are definitely in Scotland,'' he said.

Such issues, then, remain abstract for Joiner. His priority is setting the record straight on Saturday. ''As an attacking force I feel I'm much improved. Some people take a lot of convincing and I suppose I will just have to do that on the pitch.''

Meanwhile, John Bentley has been denied the challenge of tackling Lomu after having been dropped by England for Saturday's Test against New Zealand at Twickenham.

Bentley would have suspected bad news was in store for him after being subbed during last weekend's defeat by South Africa.

Facing Lomu could be David Rees, Austin Healey, or Newcastle full back Tim Stimpson, who was drafted into the squad yesterday after recovering from a hip injury that prevented his selection for the three Tests last month.

Stimpson is a full back, but may play wing and is nearly a match for Lomu's size. He played wing in the odd match for the Lions.

Manager Roger Uttley said: ''The current intention is for Stimpson to sit on the bench.''

However, the rapidly changing nature of England's squads during the last three weeks means that Saturday's XV is still a lottery.

''Phil de Glanville is sure to be fit to come back for Nick Greenstock, who replaced him against South Africa last Saturday,'' added Uttley.

''Nick received a serious shoulder dislocation in training yesterday and will be out for six weeks.''

Greenstock, England's only try-scorer against South Africa,

symbolised the inevitable consequence of day-long professional-style training that adds to injuries received in matches.

To reinforce the back division, Sale centre Jos Baxendell has been summoned to Twickenham but only as a standby.

Two certainties to pick up

their international careers are Leicester lock Martin Johnson and Northampton stand-off Paul Grayson, who replaces top two choices, Alex King and Mike Catt, who are both long-term injured.

Johnson resumes after having been suspended for punching All-Blacks captain Justin Marshall in the first Test at Old Trafford 12 days ago.