Rugby Union: Bias in the eye of pen-holder

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IN THE Five Nations' Championship I shall, as usual, be backing France, despite what I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the miserable odds of 6-5 which the bookies are offering. This is a course I have followed since I started this column in 1986.

It is not so daft as you might think. In the seven competitions (we are approaching the eighth) France have won four times, including the shared championship with Wales in 1988.

We all have our systems. My friend Geoffrey Wheatcroft backs a draw in all matches of the Five Nations. Though the bet doesn't come up very often, when it does, his winnings at 14-1, 12-1 or whatever are spectacular.

But I doubt whether Wheatcroft is up over the seasons, any more than I am up through backing France. Nevertheless, my losses are certainly less than they would have been if I had consistently backed another country, including England, who have won the championship twice during the period under review, both times at short odds.

'Ah, England]' the reader may say. 'No credit again, you see. No mention of the unprecedented back-to-back Grand Slams. Just a bald statement that they won twice.'

Most of my correspondents, I should make clear at the outset, are measured, reasonable and well-informed. A happy new year to all of them, in particular to Canon Gerald Hollis, whom I remember as a very fast wing - faster, possibly, than Cyril Holmes - playing in the great Armed Services matches of the mid-1940s. There are half a dozen other letter writers I could mention too, but must press on.

The general standard is high. I am sorry if I sound like a schoolmaster but, if I do, it is appropriate enough, for most of the stimulating correspondents are either schoolmasters or, like Canon Hollis, clergymen.

All writers are fond of praise. But equally any writer who is worth anything welcomes disagreement. What the libel lawyers call vulgar abuse is a different matter. It is not very pleasant to be at the receiving end but, if the letter writers knew how little effect it had - their productions going straight into the wastepaper basket - they would not bother putting shovel to paper in the first place.

I have not done a count, but the abusive letters seemed to have increased slightly in the last couple of years. Their general line is that I am an expletive deleted Taff who is unfair to England and biased in favour of his native land. They have grown in number since England enjoyed a

period of unprecedented success and Wales suffered a spell of more or less unrelieved gloom. They are triumphalist about England, gloating about Wales. They are the written equivalent of those ski-jacketed youths who carry cans of lager to Twickenham, shout 'Deano' and boo opposition place-kickers.

Now abuse is something to which we Welsh are well-accustomed. Commentators such as Paul Johnson and A N Wilson make remarks about us which, if they were made about any other national or racial group, would speedily land their authors in serious trouble with the Race Relations Board or some similar body. We do not mind or, if we do, we take it on the chin, for we are used to it.

Allegations of bias are more difficult to deal with. But I honestly do not think I am biased towards Wales.

My favourite national rugby sides have always been France, Ireland and Australia; France, because of their elan; Ireland, because of their spirit and because rugby is not encouraged in their country, or not in the South; and Australia also because, like Ireland, they have to contend with competing national games, and yet contrive to play rugby with a greater level of ball skill than anyone else.

Before the 1970s I believed that Wales exaggerated their past achievements. After the 1970s I thought they were resting on their record. Today I feel they have been brought low partly through the sin of pride.

Nevertheless, I take them to beat Scotland at Cardiff and to end up in the middle of the table. If that is bias, it is of a pretty mild kind.