France advance, England enhance

Chris Hewett looks at the rugby lessons of the Five Nations' Championsh ip and suggests that Anglo-French domination is not all it seems
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The Independent Online
Three cheers for France, two and a half for England, varying degrees of sympathy for the persecuted Celts and a new national anthem for the Irish. Well, the "Soldier's Song" seems somehow inappropriate for a side who, having lost every half-decent player they possess to the Courage leagues, have now compounded their own catastrophe by surrendering the will to fight.

A superficial reading of the peaks and troughs of the last 10 weeks suggests that the 1997 Five Nations' Championship offered the definitive confirmation of European rugby's slide into institutionalised inequality. France and England, rich in resources and secure in structure, breathed in the rarefied air of the mountain tops while the second-class citizenry to the north and west laboured in the foothills, confined to base camp by the fell wind of half-cock professionalism.

And it is undeniable that, taken at their worst, the Celtic underclass looked so far off the pace that the real big guns of world rugby - the All Blacks and the Springboks - would need the Hubble Telescope to trace them. Ireland's performances against England and Scotland were abject in the extreme while the Scots were unimaginably hopeless during the second half of their opening match with Wales, who, in turn, were naive in their own fixture with the Irish.

As a result, there is an overwhelming temptation to consign all three countries to the dustbin of rugby history, to advise them to give it all up as a bad job and concentrate on snooker, curling and Gaelic football instead. From now on, you may think, it's all about England and France, France and England and the supercharged, Super 12 superpowers from the super south. Super.

There is much to be said for this theory. Certainly, the French look good early bets for the 1999 World Cup for in achieving a fifth Grand Chelem without seven first-choice players - Alain Penaud, their majestic outside-half, lengthened the absentee list to eight when he pulled out of the finale with Scotland - they at last proved themselves capable of staring adversity in the face and keeping their cool rather than trying to knock its block off.

Jean-Claude Skrela, Pierre Villepreux and Jo Maso, three names from the pantheon of Gallic rugby, commanded sufficient respect to ensure iron discipline as well as will o' the wisp adventure and they deserve as much credit for that as for their prescience in unleashing Christophe Lamaison and Olivier Magne on an unsuspecting championship.

So far so good for the Two Division lobby. Hang on just a second, though. Have England got it anywhere near as right as the French? Does the impression of red rose supremacy over the beleaguered outposts of the British Isles have a firm a foothold in reality, or is it a mirage cast by a shower of impressive statistics?

Thanks to that old English standby, a juggernaut pack, Phil de Glanville's team gave short shrift to the Scots, Irish and Welsh. They scored 121 points and 14 tries in those three games while conceding 32 and two. A slaughter of the innocents in anyone's language.

Dig beneath the surface, though, and the clarity begins to blur. But for Paddy O'Brien's off-the-wall refereeing, England would have been big points down against the Scots before they had raised a sweat; but for early injuries to Eric Miller and Eric Elwood, the Irish might not have been quite so conciliatory in Dublin; but for the fact that Wales were forced to confront their nearest and least dear while in the midst of their biggest injury crisis since Offa was building dykes... De Glanville might well have bagged his Triple Crown anyway, but a germ of doubt still wriggles in the back of the mind.

Those Francophobes who believe Abdel Benazzi and company simply got lucky in the last 20 minutes at Twickenham - surprise, surprise, Brian Moore, the English pitbull, is foremost among them - should consider this. Would England have come within a lion's roar of the title had they been denied the services of their entire threequarter line, both first-choice half- backs, Jason Leonard, Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio? No, you say? Well, that's precisely the sort of injury list France were forced to swallow as the series unfolded.

For all the talk of "interactive rugby" and "big steps forward", England are no nearer settling on their best half-back pairing or most effective centre partnership than they were in January. Rob Andrew's recall last week told even more about Rowell's confidence levels than it did about the parlous state of goalkicking in a country that has a bigger playing population than the whole of Celtic Britain combined.

Contrary to the widespread belief that those Celts can no longer be considered major international powers, they still have plenty to offer the world game. (Indeed, the world game needs them; rugby league has discovered to its cost the problems of maintaining the necessary public profile on the back of a tiny handful of meaningful participants). But to emerge from the doldrums, they need to build from the bottom by re-establishing the credibility of their club rugby and generating sufficient finance to keep their best players on home soil.

The striking thing about both the Irish and the Scots during this Five Nations was not the lack of class at their disposal - they have always struggled in that direction - but the lack of, how shall we say, two-fingered defiance. Players such as Nick Popplewell and Gregor Townsend will deny this until their dying day, but when you are travelling to squad sessions from Newcastle or Northampton rather than Greystones or Galashiels - and, what is more, your earnings are quadruple those of most of the others in the side - it is next to impossible to generate the sort of common spirit that used to make Lansdowne Road and Murrayfield so forbidding. If you play England's game, only the English will benefit.

Five Nations verdict

Team of the

championship

J-L Sadourny (France); L Leflamand (France), J Guscott (England), C Lamaison (France), D Venditti (France); A Thomas (Wales), R Howley (Wales); C Califano (France), M Dal Maso (France), J Leonard (England), M Johnson (England), S Shaw (England), A Benazzi (France), F Pelous (France), O Magne (France). Close contenders: A Bateman (Wales), O Merle (France), L Dallaglio (England).

Best quote

Will Carling. "I thought you'd be arriving by donkey," he called out to Rob "The Messiah" Andrew as the veteran outside-half arrived by taxi to join the England squad in Marlow last week. But then, we knew Will was possessed of a rich sense of humour. Look at the fun he's having with the tabloids on the subject of his retirement.

Best try

Olivier Magne v Scotland. Poetry in motion and every other cliche you care to drag out. When the gods invented rugby, they had something like this in mind: off-the-top ball from Pelous, pin-point passing from Accoceberry, Aucagne and Glas to put Lamaison in the hole, a dummy from Leflamand to Sadourny followed by a scoring flick to the faithful open-side flanker. Three steps to heaven? No. The real distance is 80 metres.

Reformed character

Olivier Merle. The big softy. When the man mountain played for Grenoble, he put the horizontal heavyweights who plague professional boxing to shame; indeed, the only horizontal aspect of Merle's game was his ability to throw knock-out punches while lying at the bottom of rucks. Now, though, he is a model citizen, a veritable pacifist. Presumably, he stopped off at Lourdes before completing his move to Montferrand.

Best player

Christophe Lamaison. Midfield vision, a complete geometry set hidden in his right boot and a shoulder charge to die for, as Craig Chalmers will testify. Oh, and he also plays for Brive, the most passionate rugby town in Christendom. Some people have jam on it.

Best punch

Arwel Thomas. So what if Philippe Carbonneau thought he'd been bitten by a gnat? Little Arwel's determination to stand up and be counted showed he has guts as well as talent. Let's just hope his bruised knuckles don't prevent him sitting his GCSEs.

Five Nations statistics

FINAL TABLE

P W D L F A Pts

France 4 4 0 0 129 77 8

England 4 3 0 1 141 55 6

Wales 4 1 0 3 94 106 2

Scotland 4 1 0 3 90 132 2

Ireland 4 1 0 3 57 141 2

LEADING TRY SCORERS

Leflamand, Venditti (both France) 4.

LEADING POINTS SCORERS

Grayson (Eng) 52, Lamaison (Fr) 42, Shepherd (Scot) 42.

FRANCE

Tries: Leflamand 4, Venditti 4, Benazzi, Galthie, Lamaison, Magne, Merle, Tournaire. Total: 14.

Conversions: Lamaison 5, Castagnede 3, Aucagne, Dourthe.

Penalties: Lamaison 8, Castagnede 2, Aucagne.

Drop goals: Lamaison, Sadourny.

ENGLAND

Tries: Underwood 3, De Glanville 2, Gomarsall 2, Hill 2, Sleightholme 2, Carling, Dallaglio, Stimpson. Total: 14.

Conversions: Grayson 5, Catt 4.

Penalties: Grayson 13, Catt 2.

Drop goal: Grayson.

WALES

Tries: Evans 3, Howley 2, S Quinnell 2, Bateman, N Jenkins, A Thomas, G Thomas. Total: 11.

Conversions: N Jenkins 8, J Davies.

Penalties: N Jenkins 5, J Davies 2.

SCOTLAND

Tries: Tait 3, Weir 2, Eriksson, Hastings, Stanger, Townsend, Walton. Total: 10.

Conversions: Shepherd 9.

Penalties: Shepherd 8.

Drop goal: Chalmers.

IRELAND

Tries: Hickie 2, Bell, Miller. Total: 4.

Conversions: Elwood, Humphreys.

Penalties: Elwood 10, Humphreys.

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