Rugby Union: A toast to the Celtic uprising

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The Independent Online
THIS is a week in which some observers of rugby union - at least one of whom was a general sports writer, with little detailed knowledge of the game - might eat a few words.

Ireland, Scotland and Wales were, they confidently informed us, becoming second- or even third- rate rugby powers, if indeed they had not already become so. They might soon have to have a championship of their own, together with Italy and Romania or whoever it might be. Power had passed to England, France and the countries of the southern hemisphere.

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle] True, England could still win the Five Nations' Championship if they defeated France and Wales and finished up with a bigger points margin than Wales. France could win it also if they beat England and Scotland and ended with a larger difference than Wales.

Under the old system, Wales would by now be guaranteed a half- share of the championship. Under the new system, with the difference in match points determining the outcome in the event of a tie for first place in the final table, Wales could still be forced into second place.

At this stage, no one in Wales is worried about this possibility. Down there they go by the old rules. They are going for the Triple Crown and the Grand Slam, which would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.

Certainly, I did not contemplate it myself. I did, however, warn in this column, several times and on separate occasions, against the arrogant folly of consigning the Celtic nations to a rugby purgatory. People were still barring the heavenly gates to them even after Ireland had given France a hard time for most of the match in Paris.

Wales and Scotland on the same Saturday did not really count because that was two Celtic nations playing each other in the Cardiff rain, though even the previously most dismissive commentators were prepared to concede that Wales, with Scott Quinnell and Phil Davies well to the fore, showed distinct promise in certain aspects of play.

It took a further three weeks for metropolitan perceptions to change. They changed with the England and Scotland match. England were all over the place - or, rather, not all over the place at all, but rooted to the ground. They were lucky to win. On the same day Wales were also lucky to win against Ireland: but they had at least managed to score a try.

Last Saturday the world was turned upside down. Various explanations were proffered, such as that Jeff Probyn (who is still available), Wade Dooley, Paul Ackford and Peter Winterbottom were no longer in the England pack. But these absences were fully known about at the beginning of the season. What was not known was that Ben Clarke, Dean Richards and Jeremy Guscott would be unavailable through injury.

If, however, we are to play the injury game, it may be worth pointing out that Ieuan Evans, Nigel Davies and Wayne Proctor were missing from the Welsh side. Admittedly, Proctor would now be unlikely to displace Walker even if he were fit. I hope, too, that Alan Davies perseveres with Tony Clement as a centre, even if he has complained about being messed about.

To be fair, only Evans is in his importance to the side comparable with the three English absentees. Quite apart from his inspirational qualities, there were times on Saturday when his replacement, Simon Hill, played as if he were the third Underwood brother.

And what will happen at Twickenham on 19 March? We now possess what the racing followers call a form line. Ireland beat England, France Ireland, and Wales France. It should accordingly follow that Wales will beat England. Alas - or happily - form lines are rarely straight. If they were, there would be more rich gamblers, and a few more poor bookmakers.

Yet if Wales pull it off, I shall be pleased not only for simple loyalist reasons but because the early- season predicters of Celtic inferiority (of whom at least one seemed to take a certain pleasure in his analysis) will have been proved comprehensively wrong.