Five Nations: Surprises galore in a glorious game

Five Nations reflections: Dramatic last twist in championship tale should not discourage England's enthusiasts
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The Independent Online
AFTER 78 minutes and 19 seconds of Sunday's final Five Nations gathering at Wembley the former Wales captain Eddie Butler informed Bill McLaren - and, by extension, millions of television viewers - that he considered England favourites to win this year's World Cup. Exactly 218 seconds later one of Butler's countrymen, Scott Gibbs, stampeded through a thicket of red rose tacklers to deny the English the Grand Slam, the Triple Crown, the tournament title and just about everything else they had fought for over the previous two months. Funny lot, the Taffs. Forever letting each other down in public.

Actually, Butler should be in no particular rush to revise his opinion; favouritism might be a touch on the bold side, given England's penchant for losing winnable matches - Australia last November, Wales last weekend - but of the four teams inhabiting these islands, they remain by far the best equipped to square up to the perceived might of the southern hemisphere.

Perceived? Well, look at it this way: New Zealand, who visit Twickenham on 15 October for a game that will dictate the entire shape of the five- week World Cup competition, go into their 1999 Test programme on the back of six straight defeats. Who can say in advance of the forthcoming Tri- Nations tournament that they have successfully sorted the wheat from the chaff?

Six months shy of the event the available evidence suggests that no one should die of shock if England see off the All Blacks this autumn, thereby saving themselves both a match and a whole lot of southern hemisphere hassle while dumping Taine Randell and his Silver Ferns in the same half of the draw as South Africa and Australia.

All things being equal they will have Jeremy Guscott, Phil de Glanville and Will Greenwood back to contest the midfield positions. Jonny Wilkinson will have another three caps and umpteen Test points in his locker and Tim Rodber will have more priceless experience as an international lock.

In the context of what is to come, Sunday's trauma beneath the twin towers was a smack in the chops rather than a knife between the shoulder blades.

Clive Woodward has a decision or two to make, however, the first and most urgent of which is now staring the coach square in the eyeballs. Wilkinson must play the summer Tests against the Wallabies, Canada and the United States at outside-half, where he can exert the full weight of his influence as a controller, an organiser and a drawer of the opposition sting.

This is not to dismiss Mike Catt from the red rose equation, although there are many in England who would happily pay his air fare back to Port Elizabeth. Catt should be given an immediate run at centre - inside or outside scarcely matters - for, just as Wilkinson possesses the percentages that Catt lacks, Catt possesses raw pace, the one weapon obviously lacking in the young buck's otherwise formidable armoury. Switch them now, Clive. You know it makes sense.

Quite how to make sense of Scotland's sudden and spectacular rise to European pre-eminence is another issue altogether. Time for a touch of honesty here: 99 per cent of those of us paid to write about this ridiculous old game had the men in skirts down as stone-cold wooden-spooners and, of the remaining one per cent, none had sufficient neck to tip them as potential champions. Their subsequent flight in the face of form, logic and whatever else we use to evaluate a side's prospects in advance of the hostilities was an outstanding feat of rugby aviation. Good on them.

After last November's defeat by South Africa at Murrayfield, Jim Telfer expressed the view that, with Matthew Proudfoot and Gordon Simpson on the way back from injury, the Scots had the makings of a half-decent pack. Laughing Jim got it wrong. The Scots had the makings of a fully decent pack, even without their two big-hitters from south of the equator. That Proudfoot and Simpson - not to mention Doddie Weir, Bryan Redpath and Jamie Mayer - will fight tooth and nail for World Cup places this autumn gives Telfer a luxury he has previously experienced only on Lions tours: namely, enough strength in depth to force his selection meetings into a second minute.

It may well be that under the current line-out laws, where flexibility and liftability cut more ice than pure bulk, and with referees frowning ever more darkly on prone bodies spreadeagled around the tackle area, the Scots have grabbed the zeitgeist in ranging their light infantry against everyone else's heavy artillery. They are blessed with a once- in-a-generation rugby genius in Gregor Townsend and, in John Leslie, a midfield craftsman of sound mind and judgement. Leslie cannot be pigeon- holed merely as his stand-off's amanuensis - he is too much of an instigator for that - but he is certainly the anchor that keeps Townsend's flights of fancy within the realms of the possible.

If Graham Henry has anything to do with it - and Henry carries so much clout down Cardiff way these days that he probably has everything to do with it - there will be more Leslie than Townsend about the Welsh reaction to Sunday's wonderfully romantic uprising in north London. The national coach, very much a one-step-at-a-time Messiah as opposed to a "Lo, there shall be light" type, insists that his Red Dragons cannot yet be considered a "top team". He is right, of course; players and supporters alike will remember the victory over England until their dying day, but they should also remember the pig's ear they made of the Scotland match and the shambolic indiscipline that led to their demise against the Irish.

All the same, Henry was cute enough to use the Irish setback as an excuse to reshape the pack in his own image; the emergence of Peter Rogers and Ben Evans in the front row was, and is, a mighty bonus for a nation still living in the bygone era of Graham Price and the Viet Gwent. Whether they will still be seen as a bonus by the time Federico Mendez and his fellow Argentinians have finished mashing them into corned beef in Buenos Aires this summer remains to be seen. If the tight-five emerge smiling from that little test of sinew and spirit, Wales will surely reach a first World Cup quarter-final in 12 years.

As for Ireland and France, the Five Nations told us everything (about the former) and nothing (about the latter). Ireland have forwards - big, hard, horrible forwards - but they remain in a time-warp, particularly when the gifted Eric Miller is relegated to bench duty. That the Tricolores did not even make it to the starting post was the tournament's only downer, but they will be a different proposition come World Cup time: Sadourny, Glas, Magne, the Lievremont brothers and, quite probably, Benazzi will be back to rekindle the flame.

The Five Nations flame will not be rekindled, of course; Italy join the happy throng next year and they will bring something new and unpredictable to the expanded competition. After this season's fun and games, it is not at all clear how much more unpredictability we can take.

1999 FIVE NATIONS' FINAL STANDINGS

P W D L F A Pts

Scotland 4 3 0 1 120 79 6

England 4 3 0 1 103 78 6

Wales 4 2 0 2 109 126 4

Ireland 4 1 0 3 66 90 2

France 4 1 0 3 75 100 2

RESULTS: 6 Feb: Ireland 9 France 10; Scotland 33 Wales 20. 20 Feb: Wales 23 Ireland 29; England 24 Scotland 21. 6 March: France 33 Wales 34; Ireland 15 England 27. 20 March: England 21 France 10; Scotland 30 Ireland 13. 10 April: France 22 Scotland 36. 11 April: Wales 32 England 31.

CHRIS HEWETT'S TEAM OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP

15 MATT PERRY (England): The artist as labourer. Perry can paint the Sistine Chapel and the skirting board with equal facility: sublime finish in Dublin, crucial try-saving tackle on Dominici at Twickenham, geometrist's angle to create Luger's try at Wembley. Just edges out Shane Howarth.

14 DAN LUGER (England): Physical, very quick, and hungry enough to go looking for work - quite a departure for a Harlequin. At home on either wing, he may soon replace David Rees as Clive Woodward's favourite wide man. Indeed, the Luger-Hanley combination has a World Cup look to it.

13 JONNY WILKINSON (England): Kicks like Neil Jenkins, tackles like Philippe Sella, handles the teenage fame like Michael Owen. A little short of gas, certainly, but no one has it all. Should he suddenly develop a sprinter's pace, the rest can pack up and go home.

12 JOHN LESLIE (Scotland): So John Hart, the all-seeing New Zealand coach, has a blind spot after all. Fancy letting this guy through the net. Leslie grew through the championship, organising and laying-off and tackling and supporting and doing everything right. A joy to watch.

11 CHRISTOPHE DOMINICI (France): A light in the darkness, a spring flower in the wasteland. So much went wrong for France between Dublin in early February and Paris in mid-April that it would have been simple to pick a Five Nations side devoid of Tricolores. Dominici at least showed some pride.

10 GREGOR TOWNSEND (Scotland): The main man. Give Townsend a service from scrum-half and a safety net at inside centre and he will fry an opposing midfield alive. The way Edinburgh's finest plays it, rugby is still a game of the imagination rather than a game of the bicep. A treasure.

9 GARY ARMSTRONG (Scotland): Kyran Bracken and Rob Howley may be Europe's state-of-the-art No 9s, but this man is the beating heart of the scrum- half tribe: gritty, resilient, implacable. If Jim Telfer had been a half- back, he would have resembled an elongated Armstrong. What a thought.

1 TOM SMITH (Scotland): That Smith carries so much on his shoulders probably explains his peculiar physique: he strikes you as someone who has laboured too long under a heavy load. By the time he broke a leg against Ireland, he had set the standard for the Scottish pack.

2 KEITH WOOD (Ireland): Faded along with his countrymen, but no one who witnessed his madcap heroics against the French in Dublin will dispute Wood's uniqueness. Smeared with blue sponsor's paint, he looked and played like Hiawatha, Wild Bill Hickok and Buster Keaton combined. Quite an act.

3 DARREN GARFORTH (England): Like good wine, Georgian architecture and dear old Jeff Probyn, England's oddball improves with age: big heart, big appetite, big tackle count, small error count. Garforth, like Smith, is a silent type, which means Wood could talk for all three.

4 MARTIN JOHNSON (England): The best front-jumping lock in the world, end of story. Scott Murray enjoyed a wonderful championship in the Scotland engine room, but no selector with his brain fully engaged would leave the Leicester captain kicking his heels in the dug-out. Pure class.

5 TIM RODBER (England): Did not enjoy the finest 90 seconds of his career as the clock ran down at Wembley on Sunday: one illegal tackle (apparently) and one missed tackle gave Scott Gibbs the chance he needed. Still, the other 330 minutes of the tournament underlined his importance.

6 COLIN CHARVIS (Wales): A Lion in the making, definitely. Along with Chris Wyatt, a heroic line-out figure, Charvis gave the Welsh pack its edge, its authority, its competitive streak. He also gave Graham Henry a base on which to construct a forward unit capable of living with the best this autumn.

7 RICHARD HILL (England): A controversial call, perhaps. Neil Back is, regardless of his costly faux pas against Wales, a remarkable talent, but Hill made the English back row tick while playing out of position on the blind-side flank. Think what he could achieve if he was played in his rightful place.

8 LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO (England): Two almighty games against Ireland and Wales: the force of his tackling and the dynamism of his driving confirmed him as Europe's most accomplished loose forward. Only Abdel Benazzi, the former French captain, demands comparison - and he is out of favour.

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