Dearth of class confirms gap

Mark Evans, the coach of Saracens, analyses the variety of styles in the Five Nations and concludes they still lag behind their southern hemisphere rivals
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The Independent Online
So that's that then. Cage the cockerels, stow away the saltires and banish the Barbour to the back of the closet - it's all over for another year. The Five Nations' Championship - the great commercial and sporting giant of the European winter has drawn to a close. And less than nine months after the World Cup what, if any, progress has been made?

As ever a few new stars emerged - Leigh Davies, Robert Howley, Simon Mason, Gwyn Jones, Thomas Castaignede, Lawrence Dallaglio. Some more experienced performers made the transition from bit-part players to centre stage; take a bow Rob Wainwright, Gregor Townsend, Bryan Redpath, Martin Johnson and Gareth Llewellyn. But a worrying feature was the lack of truly world- class players in the "spine" of all five teams. There was no outstanding hooker, No 8 or full-back in the whole championship and, with the exception of Scotland, every country had problems with at least one of their half- back positions.

In terms of playing style there was some variety; Wales ran, Scotland rucked, Ireland drove, England mauled and France decided not to bother with anything as orthodox as a sensible selection policy so it really didn't matter how they tried to play.

Once again England showed that they are damned hard to beat. It might not always be pretty but is reasonably effective - at least within Europe. A relatively inexperienced pack gelled together well in the last two games but to expand their game further a number of adjustments are called for. Principally they need to deliver quicker first-phase ball (it is virtually impossible to run line-out ball that is caught and driven at the front of the line or scrummage ball that is held for five seconds at the No 8's feet) and to improve the passing skills and alignment of the midfield trio. It is probably too much to hope that English versions of Robert Howley or Gregor Townsend will emerge overnight. Until they do England would do well to continue to play to their strengths and make sure their hooker can throw to the back of the line-out so that a few peels and drives into the heart of the opponents' midfield can deliver the kind of ball that Guscott and company so rarely receive.

The success story of the championship was Scotland. In Italy they were awful, on paper they were moderate, but a well balanced back row and gifted half-backs can take you a long way in rugby. Tactically they were sound, their team spirit was excellent and their match against France provided the game of the tournament. However their front five just isn't big or strong or powerful enough to allow them to compete against the likes of England, South Africa or Australia. At the very highest level they can be muscled out of a game but in terms of ball handling, rucking and body positioning they set the benchmarks in the northern hemisphere.

The corpse that was Welsh rugby is definitely twitching - albeit intermittently. Seven tries, bags of optimism and some genuine passion all augur well for their summer sojourn in Australia. At last they have a competitive line-out, a reasonable scrum, an excellent scrum-half and an interesting midfield. What they don't have is two big, powerful, ball-handling back- row forwards to go with Gwyn Jones who, as an out-and-out open-side flanker, suits their style of play really well. What Wales wouldn't give for the likes of Rodber, Diprose, Ojomoh or Corry - none of whom can make the English back row at present, but all of whom are vastly superior to the present Welsh incumbents.

Ireland look a fraction more organised this season, although whether this is an advantage to them is a debatable point. At home they played a good driving game and really should have beaten Scotland but they persist in picking a scrum-half whose pass is simply not up to international standard and a No 8 who can only play going forwards. As a result their middle five didn't function as a unit consistently. Their other major weakness was a porous midfield defence which all the other nations exploited at one time or another.

France are in disarray. Far and away the most talented side in Europe, they amount to considerably less than the sum of their parts. Having exorcised the English demon they proceeded to fritter away all the gains of the past 12 months in a bizarre series of selectorial blunders. To play Abdelatif Benazzi, the best back-row forward in the world, in the second row, beggars belief. Emile Ntamack is wasted on the wing and half the team are playing out of position. Away from home they lack heart and direction. All in all a mess, so put pounds 100 on them to win the Grand Slam next year - and do it now.

And in the midst of all this, on the other side of the world, the first games of the new Super-12 competition took place. Played under yet another set of law changes it looks fast, skilful and physical on TV. Wales and Scotland visit the southern hemisphere this summer - will they have closed the gap since the World Cup? Somehow I doubt it.

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