Rugby Union: At odds with the bookies

CONTRARY to my expectations, England are not odds-on favourites for the Five Nations' Championship. The odds which the bookies are offering are: England 11-10, France 6-5, Ireland 8-1, Scotland 18-1 and Wales 33-1.

I thought the odds would reflect English pride at the win over New Zealand and would fail to reflect France's achievement in beating Australia once. Consequently, I calculated, England would be over-priced, reflecting not only pride, but pre-Christmas sentimentality; while France would turn out to be something of a bargain.

But not a bit of it. Those bookies are not fools. They are offering 1.1-1 against England, 1.2-1 against France. It is likely that the outcome of the championship, now decided on score differences if match points are the same at the end of the competition, will be settled by the England and France game to be played in Paris.

Look at it this way. Suppose a punter has pounds 100 (not a colossal sum these days) to invest, as the bookies like to put it, or to spend on entertainment, as I prefer to regard the transaction. An English win in the championship will produce a profit of pounds 10; a French win, one of pounds 12. We are talking about a difference of pounds 2. Is it worth it? No, in my opinion, it is not.

Mention of the sum pounds 2 reminds me of what Hugh McIlvanney once said about duty-free purchases of wines and spirits. If a complete stranger came up to you, McIlavanney observed, and offered you pounds 2 to carry a bottle of whisky half-way round the world, you would give him a punch on the jaw.

I feel much the same way about the bookies coupling France and England at virtually identical odds. It is not what I would call a fair book. I would advise punters either to treat the competition with what the late George Brown called a 'complete ignoral' or else to invest in one of the other countries who may provide some fun for their money.

Patriotic Scots will support Scotland, though the various Scottish performances against the All Blacks (excepting that of the A side) do nothing to convince that they will be challenging for the championship.

Ireland strike me as a better bet. I am not unduly influenced by their performance against a jaded England at the end of last season, when the now discarded Jeff Probyn was the only English forward not to succumb by the end. That was the kind of performance which the Irish reserve for Lansdowne Road.

Nor do loose-head props such as Nick Popplewell (the only non- English forward who would, on current form, force himself into a Lions pack) win matches on their own - though loose-heads who go to pieces, as Popplewell is most unlikely to do, can certainly lose matches. Kickers, alas, win matches, and in Eric Elwood the Irish have a kicker in the class of Ollie Campbell or Tony Ward.

Alan Davies, the Welsh coach, certainly sees Neil Jenkins in this light. He has made a place for him in the centre to accommodate his kicking abilities. His partner would have been Scott Gibbs, who was sadly put out for the rest of the season after badly injuring his knee in the Barbarians and New Zealand game.

However, this match was by no means an entirely gloomy occasion from a Welsh point of view. Anthony Clement had a marvellous game at full-back. Nigel Walker showed that he was not just a pretty pair of legs. And Scott Quinnell demonstrated that at last Wales had got hold of a true, specialist No 8 of international class, though according to the heightist principles of the modern game he may, at 6ft 3in, be considered too short.

I would balance his youth with the experience of Phil Davies, who is still an inspirational forward in the manner of Dean Richards. And I would bring Clement into the centre in place of Gibbs, while reintroducing the unlucky Mike Rayer at full-back.

I am not saying that Wales are going to win the championship. That would be silly. But in betting terms they seem to me a better bargain at 33-1 than Scotland at 18-1, and much better fun than England at 11-10 or France at 6-5.