Rugby Union: Chirpy Welsh determined to steal Twickenham show

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The Independent Online
Kevin Bowring could barely wait to report that his chirpy and strikingly cocksure Welsh team had made only one mistake - a line-out overthrow by Barry Williams - in an otherwise faultless 25-minute training session at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff yesterday. The coach was being slightly economical with the truth, however; the Dragons made a second, far more drastic error by leaving their dressing-room door ajar.

The work-out may have been a snappy affair but the players were nowhere near sharp enough to prevent thieves relieving three of their number - Gareth Thomas and Nigel Walker, and David Young - of their wallets. Walker and Young lost the best part of pounds 500 between them while Thomas was instantly rendered a credit card-free zone. Given the fact that a fourth team member, Allan Bateman, had his car broken into in Cardiff on Wednesday night, it was blissfully ironic that the Welsh should have spent much of yesterday explaining how they intended to stage a smash and grab raid on England at Twickenham tomorrow.

Should they achieve their first Five Nations victory on English soil since 1988, Walker and company will cheerfully write off their losses. "It was revealing to discover how little money they were carrying with them to London," grinned an amused Terry Cobner, the Welsh director of rugby. "The last time we had our dressing-room infiltrated was in Dublin. I seem to remember John Perkins losing a grand on that occasion." Who said players were better off under professionalism?

Arwel Thomas' recovery from a "dead" right leg means he will take his place at the hub of an exciting Welsh back division. The Swansea outside- half had been unable to train all week, but as Bowring happily confirmed, his electric presence yesterday brought the best out of his colleagues. "It was a top-quality session, quite superb in terms of tempo, attitude and confidence," said the coach.

Bowring's assertion that there was an "element of doubt" in the minds of his opponents was largely confirmed by Roger Uttley, the England manager, who accepted that failure to win for the eighth consecutive Test would lead to "questions being asked in high places".

"We are very conscious that we need a good, winning performance this weekend. There is no panic and we are not losing our heads, but the recent scenario under which we regularly put 20 or 30 points on Wales has hanged.

"We are competing against a skilful, tough Welsh team a long way removed from the sides of the early 1990s. When we were beating them comfortably they were severely debilitated by the constant drain of talent to rugby league, but they are all back now and they have come back better players," Uttley said.

It is a long time since England felt such an overriding desire to get their excuses in early and Uttley's comments will have left the Welsh wondering exactly who are favourites. There is no doubting the identity of the underdogs in this weekend's second match between Scotland and France at Murrayfield, however.

Jean-Claude Skrela, the French coach, went out of his way yesterday to pay tribute to Scotland's traditional pride and dynamism, but agreed that his biggest concern was to guard against overconfidence. "We must remember that we have won only once at Murrayfield in 20 years," he said.

Derrick Lee, the London Scottish full-back, will make his first international start tomorrow after sneaking ahead of Rowen Shepherd in the race for the No 15 shirt. The Scots have made further changes by preferring Tony Stanger of Hawick to Leicester's Craig Joiner on the right wing and keeping faith with Dave Hilton, the loose-head prop from Bath who replaced George Graham midway through the victory over Ireland a fortnight back, as their front-row foundation stone.

SCOTLAND (v France, Murrayfield, tomorrow): D Lee (London Scottish); T Stanger (Hawick & Scottish Borders), A Tait (Newcastle Falcons), G Townsend (Northampton), K Logan (Wasps); C Chalmers (Melrose & Scottish Borders), G Armstrong (capt, Newcastle Falcons); D Hilton (Bath), G Bulloch (West of Scotland & Glasgow), M Stewart (Northampton); D Cronin (Wasps), D Weir (Newcastle Falcons); R Wainwright (Dundee HSFP & Caledonia), P Walton (Newcastle Falcons), S Holmes (London Scottish). Replacements: R Shepherd (Melrose & Caledonia), S Longstaff (Dundee HSFP & Caledonia), A Nicol (Bath), S Grimes (Watsonians & Caledonia), A Roxburgh (Kelso & Scottish Borders), G Graham (Newcastle Falcons), G Ellis (Currie & Edinburgh).