A better bet than England

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The Independent Online
This year the Five Nations' Championship, I am glad to say, is beginning a few weeks later than usual, on 21 January, with Ireland against England and France against Wales. It ends, too early for my liking, on 18 March, with England against Scotland andWales against Ireland.

I should prefer a season which started at the beginning of March and finished at the end of April. But this, I shall be told, is impossible or, if it is not that, inconvenient. So there is no point in complaining.

The bookmakers are making England 10-11, France 15-8, Wales 5-1, Ireland 14-1 and Scotland 40-1. England do not strike me as a particularly good buy.

They should beat Scotland at Twickenham, and may do the same to France at the same ground on 4 February. The French have never been completely happy at Twickenham and have, in addition, developed an inferiority complex about the English over the past decade or so, irrespective of whether the game is to be played at Twickenham or at Parc des Princes.

But I am not at all confident of England's ability to beat Ireland at Lansdowne Road. Last year the Irish defeated them at Twickenham. The year before that the entire England pack, with the exception of Jeff Probyn, virtually gave in.

All the more reason, you may say, for England to put up a stirring performance in Dublin. Yes, indeed. But, as the Barbarians against South Africa match showed, the Irish have a formidable front row in Peter Clohessy, Keith Wood and Nick Popplewell - though I have some doubt about the capacity of the first two to keep out of serious trouble if there is a vigilant referee to hand.

However, Eric Elwood is almost as reliable a goal kicker as Rob Andrew, the difference having come about more through Andrew's recent improvement than through any deterioration on Elwood's part. Brendan Mullin is back, though at 31 he may be too old for this kind of thing. And Simon Geoghegan, even if out of practice with his new club, Bath, always rises to the challenge of international rugby.

Oddly enough, I would give more for England's chances against Wales at the Arms Park on 18 February. A friend of mine, the late Llew Gardner, wrote a poem after the Aberfan disaster entitled "Poor Bloody Wales". In rugby terms, it was never more appropriate than today.

Having pulled themselves off the floor and won the championship last year at 33-1, they now find themselves, through desertions to rugby league and injuries, halved in strength.

Their most recent casualty is the flanker, Hemi Taylor, whose hand was seriously injured in what is variously described as a "fracas" or "incident" in a Cardiff wine bar or nightclub.

I am told that Welsh players are now commanded to eat oven-cooked chips as distinct from the deep-fried variety. Barry John recently speculated about what the Llanelli and Lions forward, Delme Thomas, would have said if anyone had told him what sort of chips he should consume. Robert Norster and Alan Davies, the Welsh manager and coach respectively, instead of going in for this dietary foolishness, would be much better employed keeping their charges out of wine bars and nightclubs.

Even so, if Wales have Mike Rayer, Ieuan Evans, Nigel Davies, Nigel Walker (who played last Saturday), Emyr Lewis and Taylor all restored to health, and if in addition Norster and Davies have the sense to bring back Robert Jones (which is, I admit, unlikely), then I can see Wales beating England at Cardiff.

I have several friends who bet patriotically. Thus Peter Corrigan of the Independent on Sunday always put his money on Wales, and last season cleaned up. Donald Trelford of the Daily Telegraph supports England, and must have shown a small profit over thepast decade.

My claim is that I place my money according to the odds being offered in relation to my own view about who are going to win. This, I am afraid, is largely hot air on my part. In practice I always end up backing France. This season will not be different. I shall be investing (as the bookmakers like to put it) £100 on France to win the Five Nations' Championship.