Rugby Union: A Lions captain must command his place on merit. We do not know yet whether Wainwright will be able to do this
Tuesday 21 January 1997
This morning I am in good spirits, not only because Wales beat Scotland, but also because I put pounds 100 on them and France in a double which came off. I do not suppose I shall get much back, though I paid the tax first: but it is better than the proverbial slap in the face with a wet haddock. I also put pounds 100 on France at 15-8 to win the Five Nations' Championship. England were 11-10 and Wales 6-1.
The latter was, I thought, an attractive bet. It looks even more attractive today. But I still think Wales will lose to France at Parc des Princes, and that France will beat both Scotland and England. I also take Wales to make short work of Ireland at Cardiff and to beat England there as well, even if it takes a little longer. So my prediction is France to win the Grand Slam and the championship, Wales the Triple Crown.
In some ways I hope I am incorrect. It would be marvellous to see Wales win the title, though I should be more than pounds 100 worse off as a result. It would be almost as gratifying if Scotland and Ireland recovered from their bad starts. The Five Nations is, in my opinion, not merely the greatest rugby but the greatest sporting competition in the world. Its attraction lies in its unpredictability. In recent years France and England have tended to come out top too often for the good of the competition.
The performance of Wales, at any rate, indicates that times may be changing. And, if the Five Nations has survived the foolishness of many (predominantly English) persons in the new era, then so also have the Lions, who go to South Africa in the summer. It was surprising that so much comment on the Scotland-Wales match had a Lions twist to it.
Understandably, the Ireland-France encounter generated less talk of this nature, though even here the Irish television commentator suggested that Jeremy Davidson would be a strong contender for the Lions second row. I can think of five other stronger candidates offhand. But let that pass.
The most flagrant case of pre-match puffing concerned Rob Wainwright for the Lions captaincy. He is what I call the E W Swanton candidate. I know perfectly well that the venerable journalist writes chiefly about cricket. But he has written about rugby as well. He embodies what I have in mind. If a player of moderate abilities is a former public schoolboy, a Cambridge Blue and an Army officer - all of which Wainwright is - the Swantons of this world at once get together to demand that he should be made captain.
Wainwright is, as it happens, a player of more then moderate abilities. He is a very good player indeed, but as a No 6 rather than as a No 8. It may be that a Lions first-choice back row would consist of him, Scott Quinnell and AN Other. But it is too early in the international season for us to judge. A Lions captain must command his place on merit. We do not know yet whether Wainwright will be able to do this.
Certainly his comments after the match were ill judged. If Scotland were, as he maintained, the victims of bad luck, it was his task to raise their spirits. This he singularly failed to do. He is certainly no challenge to Quinnell at No 8.
Quinnell is similar to Dean Richards, not so much in his style of play as in his effect on those around him. An England player once told me that, with Richards in the team, you felt that anything was possible and, even more importantly, that he would protect you. Quinnell has the same effect.
So has Scott Gibbs at inside centre. Allan Bateman outside him is almost the equal of Gary Connolly. It will be difficult for any country in the competition to come up with a better pair, not least because they are performing in the inside-outside roles which suit them best.
Though Jack Rowell could still pick Jim Fallon, John Bentley or both on the wing if he wanted to, the difference between England and Wales is that Wales's league players have come home - or to Bath, Richmond or Sale - just in time, whereas England's league players are birds of passage, such as Connolly and Jason Robinson.
At the end of Rugby Special, there was transmitted a rousing rendition by a male voice choir of "Cwm Rhondda" in Welsh. In 50 years of watching Wales, not only at Cardiff but until the early 1950s in Swansea as well, I have never heard the hymn sung in Welsh, always in English. Now the crowd at Cardiff are unable to sing it at all. "Why Oh Why, Delilah" represents the height of their aspirations. But at least the Welsh are in decent jerseys once again. They no longer look like Christmas trees. That, among other encouraging signs, is something to be grateful for.
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