As the professional game is pretty violent already I think the advantages of legalised padding outweigh the disadvantages

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I am hoping for at least one upset in the Five Nations' Championship matches to be played on Saturday. If France beat Wales, and England beat Ireland, the vista will be what we have looked over so often in the past few years: a competition between France and England, to be decided by the England v France match, which will take place this year at Twickenham.

Of next Saturday's pair, it is the Dublin game that looks more likely to produce the surprise. Of the last 10 encounters there, both countries have won five apiece, Ireland last winning in 1993. Judged by their performance against Wales, they are perfectly capable of winning, though I do not think I shall risk much money unless the odds are favourable.

As my column last week was chiefly about the deficiencies of Antipodean referees, I did not have space to pay adequate tribute to their play in Cardiff. Jim Staples had a tremendous match. In one passage of play he showed that he was as fast as, maybe slightly faster than, Ieuan Evans. On present form, he certainly deserves to go to South Africa with the Lions, though I should still prefer Neil Jenkins as first choice for his goal-kicking.

How many people, I wonder, noticed that Jenkins made a hash of catching the ball on his own line, so presenting Jonathan Bell with his first-half try, because of the padding on the posts? I am all in favour of protecting players against injury, particularly in these new, harsher times. But the padding on the Cardiff posts was rectangular and stuck out on each side of them. What is needed, surely, is padding that follows the circular contour of the post instead of being at variance with it.

As we are on the subject of padding, what about padding for players? As I understand the laws, protective clothing for chest, back and shoulder is still not allowed in rugby union, though in league it is. Yet in the Richmond v Moseley match last Saturday a Moseley player removed his jersey for one reason or another to reveal what looked like a bullet-proof jacket, which may have been a necessary addition for someone playing against the Quinnell brothers.

Three years ago, when South Africa were playing in Wales, I noticed Francois Pienaar emerging jerseyless from the dressing-room wearing copious quantities of padding round his shoulders. Most of his colleagues looked as if they were similarly protected. Obviously, on the hard grounds in South Africa you need some extra covering, even though the laws of rugby union football are the same the world over.

My view is that, if players want this kind of protection, they should be allowed to have it. The laws should be amended accordingly. The contrary argument is that, the more protection that is allowed, the more violent the game will become. But as the professional game is pretty violent already - it can only be a matter of time before someone is killed - I think the advantages of legalised padding outweigh the disadvantages, though it may well be that our players will come more and more to resemble American footballers.

Playing for Richmond in the match I have briefly referred to was last year's Irish full-back, Simon Mason, then of Orrell. He was probably the best full-back in the British Isles, judged by form rather than by reputation. Yet today he is in Irish estimation not only behind Staples but behind Conor O'Shea as well. Rugby is a capricious sport.

Eric Elwood would probably agree with that. When he first appeared in international rugby four years ago, he seemed an outside-half in the Irish mould, not as exciting as Tony Ward and Sam Campbell, perhaps, but a worthy successor nevertheless, not least in his goal-kicking abilities. The Irish selectors, having discovered yet another good outside-half, then proceeded to mess him about, dropping him, restoring him and then dropping him again for no very apparent reason. He certainly did all that was required of him against Wales.

Other players - notably the Irish back five - did considerably more. Seven of their forwards now play for Courage League clubs. In the past, there have been troubles, notably with London Irish, over players who are required both for provincial matches in Ireland and for training sessions there. I suggested that, as a compromise, these sessions should be held at Stansted Airport. Now even this seems to be unnecessary. They could be held instead at the London Irish's ground at Sunbury-on-Thames, which would presumably suit the new Irish coach, Brian Ashton, better than the present arrangements.

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