Rugby Union: England helped by Gatland's poor selection policy

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BEFORE THE latest round of Five Nations matches, the odds were: France 1-8, Wales 9-2, England 4-9 and Ireland 7-4. I thought the Irish price was generous, the Welsh distinctly on the mean side. Nevertheless I determined to have a bet, a silly bet, what the Sun likes to call "a bit of fun" whenever it has done anything particularly reprehensible.

So I invested, as the bookmakers put it, pounds 20 (tax added) in a Wales- Ireland double. I thought I would go down at the first hurdle in Paris but that I might scrape over in Dublin, by which stage of the race, of course, it would be too late.

But the race went quite the other way. Ireland were a smudged copy of those who had beaten Wales - unrecognisable as the outfit who had harried France to within a missed penalty of defeat on the opening Saturday of the season.

This is not hindsight on my part, but I thought Warren Gatland, the Irish coach, had made a mistake when he chose Victor Costello before Eric Miller at No 8. In form, as he is, Miller is one of the best back row forwards in the competition. And though a lad as big and strong as Costello may be able to intimidate lesser mortals, he is not going to cause the slightest concern to the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill, to say nothing of Tim Rodber and Martin Johnson.

Why, I wonder, does Gatland not restore Reggie Corrigan at loose-head instead of playing Peter Clohessy out of position? Or play two genuine jumping locks in Malcolm O'Kelly and Jeremy Davidson? Or make the place-kicking cast iron with Simon Mason? Or recognise the most penetrative Irish back around, Darragh O'Mahony of Bedford?

Perhaps these changes would not have been enough to beat England. But there was a 15-minute period at the beginning of the second half when Ireland could have taken a convincing lead with a converted try. However, the backs lacked guile.

Exactly the same could be said of the England backs for long stretches of the match. Even so, Clive Woodward said afterwards that it had been the best England performance under his stewardship; Dallaglio joined in to much the same effect; they were both echoed by assorted reporters; while Philip Matthews, that fine former Irish No 6, gave his opinion that England would have no difficulty in beating France at Twickenham.

They all seem somewhat easily pleased. In particular, I am less confident than Matthews about the outcome of the French match. France played badly against Ireland though they won. They did not play badly against Wales but they lost. When they come to Twickenham their pride will be formidable.

Though I think it eccentric to play Emile Ntamack at full-back, in spite of his three tries, and that France must have two better centres than the present combination, they may yet astonish us all in a few weeks.

So may Wales at Wembley in April. Once again the enemy may be what the writer Hugh Kingsmill termed "dawnism".

But at last Graham Henry, the coach, seems to have put together a plausible front row. Peter Rogers was born in Llanelli, played most of his rugby in South Africa, and then joined London Irish. But he has played little for their first team this season and little rugby of any description. Choosing him was a risk by Henry which turned out to be justified, though he was substituted by Andrew Lewis in the second half.

With six replacements now allowed, the Welsh coach took the prudent and, as far as I know, unprecedented course of having an entire front row - Lewis, Barry Williams and that old war horse John Davies - on the bench ready to run on, if necessary, for Rogers, that other war horse Garin Jenkins and Ben Evans, who, like the Quinnell brothers, had an excellent game.

All of a sudden, Henry is a victim of what the politician Peter Walker once called the problems of success. He has to decide whether, subject to fitness, to restore Gareth Thomas, Allan Bateman and David Young for the theoretically friendly match against Italy in Treviso which precedes the Wembley encounter with England. To drop Evans, in particular, would be harsh after his Paris performance.

The whole season has been interesting from the start. Now it is fascinating. If England succeed in winning the Grand Slam by beating France and then Wales, they will have proved themselves to be a very good side indeed - a rather better side than I think they now are, despite the satisfaction after the Irish match.