Rugby -Five Nations Championship: Celtic nations need to regroup

The Five Nations balance of power has moved to England and France. Chris Hewett assesses the response to that shift
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BARRY JOHN used to begin his after-dinner addresses with a devastating one-liner that not only evoked the feathery touch and waspish wit of his halcyon days as the most revered Welsh outside-half of them all, but also captured an entire nation's dismissive attitude towards the so-called rugby habitually played by their nearest and dearest from the wrong side of the Severn. "We were messing about in training one afternoon," he would say, a cheeky grin working its way across his darkly angelic features. "We must have been playing England the next day."

Back in the late Seventies, a Welshman had good reason to assume it would be ever thus. The ancient foe engaged in 16 Five Nations jamborees between 1964 and 1979 and in all that time, England scraped one win and a couple of jammy draws. It was nothing out of the ordinary for Wales to win five off the reel and a 30-point victory left no one in urgent need of shock therapy. You could set your clock by Wales' annual plucking of the wan and withered red rose.

Yet now that the pluckers are themselves being plucked sideways, the prophets of doom are shouting the house down. The Five Nations is dead, they say. Expired, gone to meet its maker, an ex-championship. The Celtic nations might just as well stay at home and save themselves 80 minutes of ritual humiliation, for they have about as much future as a Kuwaiti ski-jumper. Wales versus Scotland at Wembley? Make way for rugby's first So What? international.

And on the face of it, they have a point; England have lost only six of their last 30 matches against Ireland, Scotland and Wales and what is more, they have registered record victories over each in the twinkling of a calendar year. France, the only other European power remotely capable of giving the All Blacks or Springboks a game of anything more physical than crazy golf, are equally rampant. Depressingly, the odds on Les Tricolores sticking 100 points on Ireland in Paris this afternoon are a miserly 16- 1.

But at least the cocksure jibes from the Twickenham terraces are having the right sort of effect on the poor cousins from the north and west. Terry Cobner, the Pontypool flanker who once reduced a strong Lions pack to tears with his inspiring dressing-room rhetoric, agrees that Wales have ground to make up but flatly refuses to accept the mantle of also- rans, despite that 60-point mauling at Twickers a fortnight ago. Now director of rugby across the bridge, he insists the Five Nations is alive and kicking.

"Look, we didn't hear people bleating about the state of the championship when we were beating England in our sleep, did we?" he snaps. "I know a lot of English rugby folk - I even mix socially with them now and again - and I'll tell you the one thing I can't stand about them. It's their bloody sympathy. We may have conceded 60 points but we don't need pity, least of all from those we used to see off year after year.

"I think the most passionate Welshman realised, even back in the Seventies, that once the English got themselves organised and started to use the vast resources at their disposal, they would become a force in world rugby. Sure enough, they have adapted well to professionalism - at least, they have in terms of what happens on the pitch. They have handled the transition better than us and it's showing in their results. However, big scores are quite common at the moment and as the Super 12 tournament down south has proved, it is perfectly possible to reverse them."

Cobner quite rightly believes that the latest trends among international referees, particularly those New Zealanders and Australians cutting new teeth on the try-laden candy-floss of Super 12, are directly responsible for many of the hopelessly lop-sided scorelines. "I can't say I enjoy seeing 12 tries and 80-odd points a game and some of my contemporaries would turn in their graves at the very thought of it," he says.

"We've been brought to this situation by people whose overriding concern has been to provide a mass audience with what they assume they want to see. It's very hard to defend these days because there are referees who stack everything in favour of the side in possession. Rather like William Webb Ellis at Rugby School, they are showing a fine disregard for the rules of the game. Until they start refereeing according to the charter agreed by the International Board, we'll get these daft scores. But it will sort itself out soon enough and then we'll see whether the Five Nations is a waste of time."

Rob Wainwright, capped 31 times by Scotland and a Test Lion last summer, is equally offended at being labelled an irrelevance. "One swallow doesn't make a summer and one round of results like those of a fortnight ago doesn't wipe out a championship like the Five Nations," he asserts. "England were pretty desperate 20 years ago while the Welsh were quite the opposite. These things go in cycles.

"I do think England and France are making their numerical advantage pay at the moment and certainly in Scotland, we've found it hard to put our professional structures in place with the same degree of success. Sure, the English are at each others' throats behind the scenes, but the power struggle doesn't seem to be affecting either the quality of player they are producing or the quality of rugby they're turning out on the pitch.

"And yes, I agree that defending against a more physically powerful side is becoming increasingly difficult. Any power differential, any inherent disparity, is cruelly exposed nowadays, to the extent that if the stronger side does everything right from, say, a set scrum, they really ought to score every time. Rugby is not like football, where an overmatched team can fall back in numbers and keep down the score very effectively.

"But there is absolutely no reason why the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish shouldn't regroup, build themselves up and come again. European rugby needs us to be competitive and we will be, provided we sort ourselves out off the field and get our structures correct. The Five Nations, or Six Nations as it will soon become, has a great deal going for it."

Wainwright, an army doctor by profession, does fear for the future of one tournament, however. "I worry about what may happen at next year's World Cup," he admits. "It's not so much a concern about competitive credibility or ridiculous scorelines, but about personal safety. We're going to get some pretty under-powered sides in the tournament and they will find themselves playing some very powerful outfits indeed. I hope I'm wrong, but injuries could blight the whole tournament. People could get badly hurt if they're not very careful."

After a fortnight of funereal mutterings about the whys and wherefores of a top-heavy Five Nations, Wainwright's warning sounds a strikingly different note. Rugby may take itself far too seriously far too often, but every now and again it is confronted by an issue of genuine gravity. This one needs addressing, and quickly.