Big men with a mission

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The Independent Online
"When once you have thought of big men and little men," Dr Johnson remarked of Gulliver's Travels, "it is very easy to do all the rest." "That's what we've been looking for," Ben Clarke said after Saturday's match at Lansdowne Road, "the big men running at the smaller men."

Just so. We should not, however, assume, even given the disparity in size between the English back row and their opponents, that what they did was easy. The difference in weight, incidentally, between the packs as a whole was not so great, amounting to an Irish disadvantage of under 4lb a forward.

Clarke, Dean Richards and Tim Rodber displayed not only character - the favourite word in post-match assessments - but craftsmanship as well. Even at close quarters, it is never easy to control the ball while a gale is blowing. Jack Rowell's policy of playing three No 8s was vindicated.

It was vindicated, however, in a specific situation - when the wind was constant and an open game was impossible. Whether it would be quite so successful in more clement conditions, such as will exist in South Africa in the summer, is open to debate.

But in the championship the British weather may turn out to be Rowell's justification. The current season, though it started relatively late in January, ends on 18 March. On Sunday Paul Ackford suggested, as I did some years ago, that the championship should be shunted forward.

This year, for example, the first Saturday of the competition could be 4 March. With a fortnight's gap between the two-match Saturdays (the present arrangement), the last Saturday would be 29 April. Numerous timetables would have to be altered. But I am convinced the change will come eventually.

The traditional fixtures, such as Scotland against France on the first Saturday in January, have already ended. So there is no sentimental reason why the matches should not be moved forward. Meanwhile Rowell can happily carry on.

It was not only the back row who had a tremendous match. The front row performed more than adequately, too, even though in the last 10 minutes Keith Wood took one against the head from Brian Moore, who will not care to be reminded of the incident. Even so, Moore had a fine game. I thought before the match that his declared intention of exposing the inadequacies of the Irish front row was all got up for the benefit of the press. But the match showed that this was not so, or not entirely so. Afterwards the Irish trio did not look such automatic choices for a Lions' front row as they had after the South African match.

On form, Rowell would bring back Paul Hull for the French game and play Mike Catt in the centre instead of Jeremy Guscott, who has increased in selfishness as he has diminished in pace. But I do not suppose it will happen or ought to happen, for form is an unsure guide. Guscott and, now, Catt are the only English backs to match French flair.

Christophe Deylaud, the new outside-half with the frizzy hair and stockings around his ankles, remains a man of mystery. Perhaps the greatest mystery is why the French coach, Pierre Berbizier, who gives the impression of being something of a short back-and-sides man, fancies him so much. But then Berbizier wants to restore France to their glory of pre-Jacques Fouroux days, when style rather than power won matches.

Wales, I thought, displayed a lot of (that word again) character. Nigel Walker showed that, and also a pace which would perhaps have been equalled only by Andrew Harriman. Though I am not crying "We was robbed" - for France would have won anyway - I do not think a game should be allowed to proceed when a player is off the field, as Simon Hill was, and his replacement has not yet come on.

On Saturday morning I put £200 (£220 including tax) on France to win the Five Nations. I was pleased to get odds of 7-4 from my bookmaker, as against the 6-4 that Ladbrokes were offering, though regretful that I had not taken the odds of 15-8 which had been available to me a few weeks ago. By Saturday evening, however, I was less confident of seeing a return on what the bookies choose to call my investment, come the end of the season.

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