French to provide the acid test

FIVE NATIONS COUNTDOWN: England's search for long-term success could be undermined by a thirst for victory, says Steve Bale
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It has become commonplace at this time of the year to demote the worth of the Five Nations' Championship because of its World Cup context but, as those of us enamoured of this annual imbroglio keep saying, the great contest of the home countries and France has more, not less, significance because of the quadrennial rugbyfest.

Yes, we all know that England and the rest would benefit from, and therefore need, greater exposure to the different rigours of confronting the game's southern-hemisphere giants, and it can certainly be persuasively argued that the championship alone is inadequate. On the other hand, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have now set up their own version so we up at this end of the world must have been doing something right.

But however much you argue that, being immediately post-World Cup, the 1996 Five Nations which commences on Saturday is the start of the road to the next, at the same time it stands alone as it does every year as the sporting event that brightens our winter and fills every one of our international stadiums. The 10-game championship begins with France v England in Paris and Scotland v Ireland in Dublin and by the time it ends on 16 March more than 600,000 people will have watched.

What with all the stuff we constantly hear about rugby union's ABC1 viewers, is it any wonder that Sky - whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, is already forking out pounds 366m over 10 years for southern-hemisphere rugby - should be prepared to pay undreamed-of sums for the Five Nations television rights? The ante, so we are told, was recently upped from pounds 175m to pounds 250m. The last contract went for less than pounds 30m, and that was a record.

At a time when rugby institutions need all the funds they can get to finance the new professionalism which was so unpopular with the English rank and file at Sunday's chaotic Rugby Football Union general meeting in Birmingham, this is an irresistibly attractive offer. The RFU, by the way, has said it will insist on a territorial element in any new contract.

For now, though, the BBC carries on as it has since the year dot, and if the rugby is not always as good as programme producers might desire, the sense of occasion and history - which rival entrepreneurs such as Ross Turnbull would lose for ever - will be undiminished. As Will Carling, the England captain during eight championships, once put it, the Five Nations "has a magic and intensity all of its own and unless you have played in it or watched it you don't understand".

This is an implicit rebuke for Antipodeans and others who have tried to rubbish what goes on from January to March, though we can be sure the rest of the rugby world will be far from Carling's mind come Saturday. It will have to be. It will be the fascination of this game and the international season that follows to see whether Carling's leadership can do anything to inspire the unusual number of younger players in his team.

Given that he was always previously surrounded by senior - in many cases more senior than him - lieutenants, this seizure of responsibility can be seen as the greatest challenge of his entire captaincy, and if he fails his England days will be numbered.

As for long-term planning, the trouble is that no matter how far ahead England, or particularly Jack Rowell, may be trying to look, the only thing that tends to matter in the Five Nations is winning the next match.

That said, if Laurie Mains's New Zealand of 1995 are any example, the 1999 World Cup should effectively start here. Mains coached the All Blacks to what at the time were some of the more humiliating defeats in their history, but when it came to the World Cup proved it had been for the greater good by developing a team who ought to have won it.

Whether the Five Nations are willing to be as stoically patient is another matter, though the England manager did pose the question earlier this season whether English rugby would accept a number of defeats in the wider interest. Rowell will have his answer if and when England lose either in Paris or subsequently, and if the reaction to the pre-Christmas performances against South Africa and Western Samoa is anything to go by it will probably be no.

Elsewhere we can already see a New Zealand-style process taking shape. Wales miss out on the first championship Saturday but the new coach, Kevin Bowring, has already given himself a new team by his selection to play Italy tonight. Ireland and Scotland also have new coaches, though the mood in the former appears to be considerably more optimistic than in the latter. Perhaps it was ever thus.

As ever, however, the championship will in essence depend on how well France perform, and initially on how far they exorcised their demons by beating the perfidious English in the third-place World Cup match in Pretoria. If they have, they have the wit, flair, imagination and even these days common sense - all the things to which England endlessly say they "aspire" - not only to win on Saturday but go on to their first Grand Chelem in nine years.

1996 Five Nations fixtures

20 Jan France v England (Parc des Princes); Ireland v Scotland (Lansdowne Road).

3 Feb England v Wales (Twickenham); Scotland v France (Murrayfield).

17 Feb France v Ireland (Parc des Princes); Wales v Scotland (Cardiff Arms Park).

2 Mar Ireland v Wales (Lansdowne Road); Scotland v England (Murrayfield).

16 Mar England v Ireland (Twickenham);

Wales v France (Cardiff Arms Park).

1995 final table

P W L F A Pts

England 4 4 0 98 39 8

Scotland 4 3 1 87 71 6

France 4 2 2 77 70 4

Ireland 4 1 3 44 83 2

Wales 4 0 4 43 86 0

1995 results: 21 Jan France 21 Wales 9; Ireland 8 England 20. 4 Feb England 31 France 10; Scotland 26 Ireland 13. 18 Feb France 21 Scotland 23; Wales 9 England 23. 4 Mar Ireland 7 France 25; Scotland 26 Wales 13. 18 Mar England 24 Scotland 12; Wales 12 Ireland 16.