France seem the team to watch out for


For the Five Nations' Championship, the bookmakers are offering evens on France, England 11-8, Scotland 10-1, and both Ireland and Wales 14-1. I think England are poor value, Scotland and Ireland are good value, while France and Wales are about right. It follows from this that the prudent punter - what the bookmakers, for all the world as if they were the Abbey National, like to call the investor - will put his money on France. Anyone looking for a bit of excitement should choose Ireland.

As we know, neither in rugby nor in betting does anything necessarily follow from anything else. That is what makes them, in their differing ways, such interesting activities. In the coming season, however, we have more to go on than in others. We have had the World Cup. The four British Isles countries have played Western Samoa. England have played South Africa once and France have played New Zealand twice. After being beaten in the first match at Toulouse, New Zealand came back in Paris. This was described afterwards as one of the best matches ever played.

Alas, I did not see it. With numerous others, I saw only a brief excerpt the next day on Rugby Special. John Inverdale, the presenter, said that it had been one of the best matches ever played, or words to this effect. I sat forward in my chair in anticipation of the delights to come. Unfortunately, Inverdale went on, the programme was unable to show any more of this apparently scintillating encounter. What we had already seen was all we were going to get.

Certainly England had played South Africa on the same Saturday at Twickenham. It was an uninspiring encounter, won by a South Africa. Rugby Special duly devoted virtually the entire programme to the Twickenham match.

Many followers of the game blame Inverdale for decisions of this kind, which is unfair. Presenters of programmes are the virtual slaves to the producer and his or her assistants. Even Sir Robin Day, when he was presiding over Question Time, had only the most limited say in who was invited on to the programme. Inverdale is merely the man who has the assortment of jerseys.

Admittedly the producers of the programme could not have foreseen that the Twickenham match would be so drab, the Paris match so glittering. But they should have budgeted for both and given them roughly equal time on the show.

Even the most spectacular game between England and South Africa would not have justified a whole programme. For those who had not seen it on the spot would have watched it live on television. A high proportion, irrespective of whether they had been at the ground or at home, would have taped the match. Those at the ground would have recorded it - as I did - to check their impressions and gain a different perspective, while those at home would have done likewise for future reference.

Here is a further criticism, directed not at the producers but at the panjandrums at BBC2 who arrange our viewing. Last Saturday was the most important day for the Pilkington Cup in 1995/96. The old lags, Bath, Harlequins, Leicester and Wasps, all came through. London Irish beat London Welsh in the Sunbury game.

There was nothing of this on Rugby Special, for the very good reason that there was no Rugby Special for it to be on. The space normally occupied by the programme was filled by Christmas in Vienna, which started at 4.30, and by Space Precinct, which finished at 6.15. Quite why the schedules need to go haywire at Christmas time and on our numerous public holidays is something I have never been able to understand. Even so, was it completely impossible to fit Rugby Special in somewhere on Sunday 24 December?

Let us end by looking back to the summer. The teams to emerge from South Africa with credit were France, Scotland and Ireland. France might have beaten South Africa if the match had not - to please television and the sponsors - been played on a mill pond of a pitch instead of being rescheduled. Scotland and Ireland showed a spirit that was lacking in England and Wales.

Since then, there have been the matches against Western Samoa. I am tempted to repeat the old joke that it was a good thing they were not playing the whole of Samoa. There was one exception: Ireland. My regret is that John Gallagher seems to have relinquished his international ambitions - or to have had them relinquished on his behalf - and is to play for Blackheath instead of Harlequins.

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