Famous Five worth a place in new world

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The Independent Online
The first professional Five Nations' Championship is soon to be upon us. The range of remuneration is high, with the English receiving approximately double their home union counterparts. Meanwhile, the French are no doubt being kept in the style to which they are accustomed by their clubs, and will not be too worried about what their union is dishing out.

The northern unions are struggling to come to terms with the pace with which professionalism has been adopted and their lack of foresight has been shown up by the Southern hemisphere. The north should be thankful to them, not least because were they not so well prepared, the game would already be in the hands of the World Rugby Corporation.

A professional tournament then, but what of the Five Nations? The same concerns are voiced on an annual basis as to the merit of the championship. Is it simply a sideshow to the World Cup or does it still retain the magic of decades gone by, which gives it its unique place in the rugby calendar?

Undeniably the popularity of rugby union ebbs and flows with the passing of each World Cup, thankfully encroaching further up the beach each time. The challenge is to maintain and improve on that popularity without losing the magic, and this will depend on how much commercialism - and in particular television - alters the character of the tournament.

Changes are inevitable and I have found it quite amusing to see people's reactions to some of these. In particular, the idea of staggering the games over Saturday and Sunday and how this will affect the jollies to Paris, Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh. The thought of work the next day would seemingly prevent many from enjoying themselves properly. Give me a break. For the tens of thousands of spectators, I do not see their revelry being dampened too much. However, for the millions of viewers it presents an opportunity for them to see both games live.

I also have no problem with later kick-off times for the second game on Saturdays, and definitely not with the inclusion of Italy, which should come as soon as possible.

The two things I would draw the line at, however, are playing weekly and staging the tournament at the end of the season. I would have to disagree with the former in defence of the players. The rigours of such a schedule would not be fair to them or as a result, of course, the audience.

Talk of playing in May would threaten the the tournament on two fronts. Firstly the games would be competing for air time and column inches with the summer sports and rugby league. Secondly, part of the tournament's appeal is that it lights up the long, drab weekends of winter. Throwing away that advantage would be like shooting yourself in the foot.

To the viewer, as well as the supporter, therefore, I do not see the Five Nations losing any of its appeal for the five nations, and in fact I would hope for heightened awareness.

What about us, the players? Is the World Cup our sole aim, to the detriment of this annual jamboree? I think not. Being world champions is the ultimate and something we must strive for. But there is still a great honour in being champions of Europe, and through default champions of the Northern hemisphere, as we are in England.

Every World Cup is a watershed, and teams will take on a new look at the beginning of a four-year cycle. But they must not get out of the winning habit.

The uniqueness of the Five Nations is provided by familiarity. This allows the tournament to throw up surprises and the form book usually goes out of the window. In 1993, Scotland lost by 50-odd points to New Zealand, whom England went on to beat. Yet two months later we were lucky to retain the Calcutta Cup in the very last minute. Where we lose out, then, is in the lack of competition against sides from the Southern hemisphere.

There is too much history and rivalry ever to belittle winning on the European stage. The Five Nations may not match the latter stages of the World Cup for intensity, partly because it is played on an annual basis rather than every four years. But not by much, and the thrill and experience is something to savour. For a few weekends you are centre stage and given the opportunity to sink or swim. As an international sportsman, it is those challenges you crave for - those golden moments when you do not just swim, you fly.