Five go mad on national service

Even in World Cup year the Five Nations' retains its own magic. Steve B ale reports
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The Independent Online
In rugby union it is World Cup year and that makes it extra special. But in rugby union every year is Five Nations year and that makes every year special. The Five Nations' Championship - even though for much of its time there were only four - is the longest-running success story in the game.

Yet every January, every time the Five Nations are about to gird themselves for yet another series of sold-out Saturdays, the question about the relative importance of the championship is posed. And, triumphantly, the answer is given: the Five Nations' Championship has never been more important.

You can argue this from a purely practical point of view. OK, there is a World Cup ahead and, even accepting that that is by a distance the greatest event in rugby, the championship of 1995 is perfect if only as preparation. Mind you, if the players involved go into any of the 10 matches believing they are merely preparing for something else they might as well forget it.

So on Saturday, when Wales begin their title defence against France in Paris and England kick off against Ireland in Dublin, we can be sure that the last thing on anyone's mind out there in the heat of battle will be the World Cup. "Can you imagine us inthe cauldron of Parc des Princes thinking about anything other than the French?" Robert Jones, the Wales scrum-half, asked, incredulous.

Yet this is precisely the sort of thing that was suggested when the 1991 World Cup was coming to its gripping conclusion. Finlay Calder, erstwhile Scotland and Lions captain, put it thus: "In the last few weeks we have been playing on a world stage instead of a back garden and the truth is that the Five Nations will have to take a back seat."

Calder could hardly have felt the same way when Scotland and England contested the Grand Slam at Murrayfield in 1990, but in any case the implication that countries should simply go from one World Cup to the next, with the Five Nations no more than a fewlocalised skirmishes of little validity in themselves is patently absurd. England, for instance, would immediately have dispensed with Webb, Halliday, Probyn, Dooley, Skinner and Winterbottom after the last one when they all plainly had more to offer - not to mention the 1992 Grand Slam to win.

Quite apart from which, the players relish their annual challenge without reference to the World Cup. Take Robert Jones, whose return to the Wales team leaves him as excited as if he were winning his first, rather than his 49th, cap. "The Five Nations has that special thing about it over and above the World Cup and I don't think that will ever change," he said.

"Of course the World Cup is brought up as we go through the championship but I can't imagine taking the field in any of the matches thinking we had to do well because of the World Cup. If you are about to play France, then the focus is absolutely on thisone game and how to play against the French, exactly as it would be for any match against any opponents. It would be ridiculous to do it any differently."

Even if you place the championship in a World Cup context, its significance is clear. "It's more important as part of the build-up to the World Cup than it ever was when it stood alone," Brian Moore, the England hooker, said. "Obviously the prize is not as great as it is in the World Cup but, as I keep saying, going into the World Cup it's better to have won four than lost four."

If that is one truism, here is another. Even if the World Cup in South Africa will be the greatest show there has ever been on this rugby earth, the Five Nations' Championship can stand on its own - without reference to the four-yearly jamboree - as guaranteed box-office, worth £30m for its three-year television contract.

Each of the games is long since sold out and we are usually told that every one could have been at least three times over if the space had been available. As it is, 560,414 will have been in attendance by the time the championship culminates on 18 March.No wonder the Rugby Football Union has pushed on so fast with the redevelopment of Twickenham and the Scottish Rugby Union with Murrayfield.

They are talking serious money. The RFU's accounts show that last season's England home games, watched by 68,000 each, against Ireland and Wales grossed a staggering £2.78m and even after expenditure netted the RFU a cool £2.4m.

With work proceeding on the West Stand, capacity is down to 58,000 this season but when the 1996 championship commences it will be up to 75,000. The financial figures elsewhere are more modest but still impressive. Cardiff Arms Park, for instance, has a

smaller capacity - 53,000 - and less room for ancillary money-making but the Welsh Rugby Union cleared £1.35m from Wales's matches against Scotland and France.

These numbers explain why the home countries and France so jealously guard their championship and why they can afford - literally - to scoff at the disparagement that occasionally emanates from the southern hemisphere. As England manager, Jack Rowell hasto have his eye on the World Cup as well as the Five Nations but he too relishes this advantage we up above have over them Down Under.

"The lovely thing about the Five Nations is it is envied by the rest of the rugby world," Rowell said. "It's more than just rugby; there's great tradition." And its relation to the World Cup? "The Five Nations' Championship will be competed for more strongly than ever this year because everyone is fitter and they are looking beyond to the World Cup."

It is three years since Will Carling, the England captain, accorded the championship greater importance because of - and not despite - the World Cup. Remember that Carling had only just led England all the way to the World Cup final, but nothing that hashappened in the meanwhile has changed his view and if that aggravates critics in New Zealand, Australia or South Africa, all the better.

The Five Nations, he told Rugby Special, "has a magic and intensity all of its own and unless you have played in it or watched it you don't understand. The southern hemisphere just doesn't understand." On the other hand, they would like a Five Nations oftheir own, so perhaps they are at least, and at last, beginning to.