Ireland are proving pundits right and bookies wrong

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The Independent Online

For some reason, Ireland were described as the "favourites'' for the Six Nations Championship from the moment the competition began, 11 days ago. This was not so. The bookies made France and England joint favourites, followed (in this order) by Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. And yet, even before their first match in Rome, Ireland were called the favourites.

For some reason, Ireland were described as the "favourites'' for the Six Nations Championship from the moment the competition began, 11 days ago. This was not so. The bookies made France and England joint favourites, followed (in this order) by Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. And yet, even before their first match in Rome, Ireland were called the favourites.

What the various commentators meant was that they, rather than the market, regarded Ireland as the favourites. So far, they have been shown to be right, and the bookies wrong - at any rate as far as England are concerned. Anyone who (as the bookies like to put it) invested in England is now unlikely to see any return on the outlay.

France are a different matter. Lucky France, unlucky England: that is a crude but fair summary of the competition as it has developed so far. French rugby journalists in Paris last week were expecting England to put up 20 or 30 points against the team visiting Twickenham. The BBC's panel of experts, Johnathan Davies, Jeremy Guscott and Martin Johnson - great players in their day - did not dissent from this view at half-time.

What went wrong or, from the French point of view, right? The simple answer is that Olly Barkley and Charlie Hodgson missed 21 points between them, while Dimitri Yachvili knocked over France's total haul of 18. Of course it helped that he was on form, whereas Barkley and Hodgson - who seems to suffer a nervous collapse in internationals if his first kicks go astray - were manifestly in no sort of form at all.

But why was the French player given the opportunities he was? The answer is surely that, in the second half, France played the referee, Paddy O'Brien more skilfully than England did. This is not to say that they cheated. Far from it. They allowed England to make the mistakes instead. It seems that the French coach, Bernard Laporte, instructed his charges to this effect at half-time. He had heard O'Brien continually shouting "Hands off, Blues'' during the first half and accordingly told the forwards to leave the handwork to England.

O'Brien was perpetually signalling a ruck when the ball was nowhere near the floor. He virtually prohibited a tackled player from releasing the ball to a colleague. He is, as we know, a New Zealander, and his native land places - or, anyway, used to place - a premium on rucking. He is also one of my less-than-favourite referees, having made several indefensible decisions (also as it happened, in France's favour) when France played Fiji in the World Cup before last. He has gone on from there. But if Laporte was shrewd, he is also uninspiring. I would have seen him playing scrum-half for Bègles-Bordeaux in the early 1990s, but he has completely escaped the memory. Bègles were then a very rough, you could even say a dirty side. What I do remember is that their ferocious front row used to wear cricket boxes as protection. I know this because, in France, journalists are admitted to the dressing-rooms as a right, which is not a development I would want to see extended to this country.

By contrast, the French manager, Jo Maso, was one of the most graceful, most accomplished centres of the entire post-war period. The present French team are more Laporte than Maso. On 26 February they play Wales in Paris. It is not a match that will necessarily decide the championship, for England are off to Dublin next day. On present form, Wales will be playing more like the French rugby of old. But the musicians from the south-west in the crowd and the hint of spring in the air may restore something to the home side. I hope so, though I also hope Wales will win.

There is some talk of introducing a bonus points system in the Six Nations, making the competition similar to the Zurich Premiership or the Heineken Cup. I hope it does not happen. Few spectacles are more painful than that of men in pubs - or journalists in front of screens - trying to work out arithmetical possibilities. The great merit of the present system is its simplicity.

True, the settling of the competition by points difference, dating from 1993, should have been introduced long before. The not infrequent sharing of the championship before then was unsatisfactory. There may even be a case now for deciding the winners by points ratio rather than difference. If that were the criterion, Wales would now be top of the table, ahead of Ireland. But I think it is better to stick to a system which even the less mathematically gifted can just about understand.

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