Happy as can be
BETTING odds reflect the distribution of the money that has so far been wagered, the bookmakers' guess about the distribution of the money that will be wagered and - a very different matter - their guess about what the outcome of the event in question will in fact be. That is the theory, anyway. In practice, the bookmakers think of a number which looks about right.
Ron Pollard, of Ladbrokes, once said to me about political betting: 'It's all a bit of fun as far as we're concerned. We do it for the publicity.' Betting on the Five Nations' Championship may be more serious in the bookmakers' eyes: but it cannot compare with betting on the horses. The current Ladbrokes Five Nations odds are 4-7 England, 9-2 France, 5-1 Wales, 8-1 Scotland, 25-1 Ireland.
In my opinion, the only fair prices are Ireland's and France's: by which I mean they reflect the probabilities. Wales and, more particularly, England, are ungenerously priced. Scotland are a bargain. On known form, they must have at least as good a chance of winning the championship as Wales or France.
It is said, of course, that they are in a transitional phase, owing to the retirement of David Sole and others. But the spine of the team remains solid. Craig Chalmers and Gary Armstrong are the best tried combination in the championship, while Armstrong and the new captain, Gavin Hastings, are capable of winning matches on their own.
Several Welsh friends consider it unpatriotic to refuse to back Wales and more reprehensible to place money on another country. The truth this year is surely that, while Wales may be worth a flutter, the odds do not compare favourably with Scotland's.
The consensus among the wise, however, seems to be that, if there is to be an upset this season, it will occur not at Twickenham on Saturday but at Cardiff on 6 February when Wales play England.
My hope is that the Welsh midfield, made up of Adrian Davies, Scott Gibbs and A N Other, can start showing some invention. It is one of the myths of recent years that Wales have been 'let down' by the forwards, who are, it seems - a familiar Welsh complaint until the successful Seventies - 'too small'.
There has been a lack of height in the line-out, though Gareth Llewellyn is establishing himself. But the front row have scrummaged excellently, and the back row have performed prodigiously. The replacement of Mike Griffiths with Ricky Evans is, if anything, a gain. He should have been in the original team. All that remains is for Gibbs to show that he is not Welsh rugby's version of one of Vincent O'Brien's talking horses.
France are not considered to be such a potential obstacle to Geoff Cooke's juggernaut. And yet, three of the players who participated in that great French try two seasons ago - Philippe Saint-Andre Philippe Sella and Didier Camberabero - will be back at Twickenham.
Sella apart, they will be there by default. Pierre Berbizier, the French coach, started off with the idea (which may or may not have been forced upon him) of preparing for the next World Cup. In particular this involved dropping Camberabero, one of the most accomplished all- round kickers of the ball.
But in the last few months, the politics of French rugby have made the pre-De Gaulle Fourth Republic look like a straightforward and simple operation. It is enough to say that, while the policy has changed - it is now geared to winning this championship - Berbizier has stayed. For Saturday, he has produced what is about the most experienced combination the French could have assembled. Two exceptions are Thierry Lacroix instead of the more accomplished Franck Mesnel - and the new hooker and new captain, Jean-Francois Tordo.
As a No 6 Tordo looked over-excitable, to say the least, whereas as a temporary hooker he was at the heart of last season's great Paris fracas. But he seems to be a relaxed kind of chap. Last week he entertained his pack and his new scrum-half, Alain Hueber, to dinner in his hometown, Nice. For myself, I hope that the spirits of the Cote d'Azure (where, at Menton, William Webb Ellis is buried) overcomes the grit of Lanzarote.