On the face of it the series appears little different from those of the recent past, with the match between France and England likely to be decisive and with Scotland, Ireland and Wales dogging it out for the minor placings. But even in these impoverished times for the Celts there have been surprises, to wit the Welsh achievement two years ago in beating three of the four countries to win the championship, and Ireland's destruction of conventional wisdom by their victory at Twickenham. And last season the Scots, following the bleakest of build-ups to the Five Nations, became the first representatives from their country to win in Paris since 1969.
Such occasions, however, have been few and far between, and as money becomes the driving force they are likely to become increasingly rare. This week's game in Paris where, remarkably, England have not lost since 1988, will surely shape the destiny of this year's championship. If England were to win for the fifth time in succession they would then have home games against Wales and Ireland and a visit north of the border where the Scots, despite their brave front, are close to despair. If they are not then they darn well ought to be after a draw against the Western Samoans and last weekend's defeat by Italy. In those two matches they have managed one measly try and conceded six. Any attempts to dismiss the Italian result on the basis that it was not the full Scottish side may be measured against the selection of the XV they do consider to be the best, which differs in only three positions.
Coincidentally that is the same number of changes (one of them positional) the English selectors have made following their unconvincing victory over the Samoans. It is possible that of the six back-row combinations tried since the start of the World Cup, this is the most unbalanced. Without the physical presence of the Rodber-Richards- Clarke triumvirate it lacks the pace, power and creativity to provide the support and continuity that England are purportedly seeking.
As one of the few who passed muster against the Samoans, Lawrence Dallaglio should have been left in peace to develop his skills on the open side. It is enough coming to terms with one position in international rugby, let alone two. Apart from being grossly unfair to the individual, what this team highlights is the bewilderment of the selection panel. If England are not yet, like their erstwhile talisman Dean Richards, up the creek without a rowing machine, they are certainly a few paddles light. The selection, which also replaces a first-class centre with a second-team winger, hardly inspires the notion of a team in control of their destiny.
There has been endless speculation on the question of the England captaincy and whether or not Jack Rowell made a grave misjudgement by not replacing Will Carling when the opportunity presented itself at the start of the season. In retrospect Rowell probably considers that his loyalty to Carling, if not misplaced, was over-generous, but to dismiss as captain someone who has been so closely identified with the most successful period in England's history, at a time when he was still performing satisfactorily, would have been a mighty gamble. It has been less a case of the "ain't broke" syndrome, rather the absence of an alternative candidate to fix it.
Rowell has surely now reached the conclusion that his vision of a more expansive game was an illusion, a flight of fantasy doomed to crash because of the technical failings of the component parts. Hence his talk now of retrenchment. Given the smidgen of a chance in open play, the French will dismantle England at Parc des Princes on Saturday just as Toulouse did to Cardiff during the first quarter of an hour of the European Cup final. But unlike Toulouse, the French forwards will surely not thereafter fall prey to the same calamitous errors that kept Cardiff in the game. Nor are they fielding a fly-half as ruinously profligate as the dreadful Christophe Deylaud.
For England to extend theirrecord in Paris they will have to revert to the tried and tested. The template of the Geoff Cooke era is still in place with a more solid front five now that Graham Rowntree has stabilised the scrummage. The two Martins, Johnson and Bayfield, are likely to be the dominant figures in the line-out although Rodber's height will be missed at the tail, where the French, through the supple athleticism of Laurent Cabannes and Abdel Benazzi, are particularly strong. Critical to England's plans will be the accuracy and length of the kicking at half- back, and for all their promise against the Samoans, the new partnership of Paul Grayson and Matt Dawson is perilously short of experience.
The most telling comment on the present philosophy was made after the Samoan game, when one of England's connections confessed that they had failed to establish a big enough lead to open the game out. But the point of an expansive style is to employ it to win, not to turn to it when the game is already won. It is my guess that long-term gain will be sacrificed for short-term expediency again and that in Paris England will retreat to the comfort zone of Plan A - which, in truth, they have never really abandoned.
Less easy to predict is Scotland's strategy for their visit to Lansdowne Road. The preference for the positive thinking of Gregor Townsend instead of the more dour talents of Craig Chalmers at fly-half is difficult to reconcile with the selection of two defensive centres, Scott Hastings and Ian Jardine, and the omission of Kenny Logan, the most effective of Scotland's runners last season. But it is the selection of Rowen Shepherd at full-back rather than the swift countering of Michael Dods, who plays instead on the wing, which offers the best clue to the Scots' mood. It is unlikely to be one of gay abandon against an Irish side which, despite a close- run thing against the US Eagles last week, is in the best of spirits.
They certainly looked good in their victory over the Fijians. Looks are not everything, especially against opponents who have no place for such pragmatic concepts as damage limitation and whose resistance, once they have accepted the inevitability of defeat, is prone to crumble. Nevertheless, the Irish have gathered around the mercurial Neil Francis a fine blend of technical excellence and raw enthusiasm. They appear to have more to offer than most behind the scrum, where Jonathan Bell, after a World Cup almost wholly devoted to defence, has the opportunity to demonstrate what he can achieve in attack.
The Irish have slowly been putting their house in order, just as the Welsh appear to be doing with the recent appointments of Terry Cobner as director of rugby strategy and Kevin Bowring as national coach. It may be too early for Wales to offer a realistic challenge, but perhaps not Ireland. On the other hand, if memory serves me right I believe I wrote exactly that last year.Reuse content