Rugby Union: England's schedule would have exhausted Casanova himself

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FOR a long time now I have been expressing the opinion, every month or so, that the Five Nations' Championship is not only the greatest rugby event but also the finest sporting occasion in the world. The relative change in the position of England and Wales, which I wrote about last week, has done nothing to alter this view.

The idea that there should be some First or (as it would now no doubt be called) Super or Premier division, consisting of Australia, England, France, New Zealand and South Africa, is so much pie in the sky. It is not even a specially appetising pie, and I will tell you why.

Such a competition would reproduce almost precisely the supposed failings of the Five Nations. That is to say, New Zealand and South Africa would find themselves in the position of England and France. These last two would resemble Ireland and Scotland. While Australia would be bobbing about somewhere in the middle, much as Wales are in the Five Nations as at present constituted.

Most of the silly talk has disappeared in the wake of last Saturday's matches. But it will resurface above the waves, mark my words, when France, England or both next heavily defeat the Celtic nations, as they are now called - though, if you want to be accurate about these matters, all three countries contain ancient elements which are not Celtic at all. They are shortly to be joined by Italy, who will have to rank as honorary Celts.

Most of the talk has come from England rather than from France. There is little doubt that it is chiefly motivated by greed: by the possibility of even more lucrative deals with Rupert Murdoch's Sky television. But what happens when England are relegated, and Ireland, Scotland, Wales or even Italy promoted? Would Murdoch be quite so keen to transmit inferior matches? And what happens if he loses interest altogether in rugby, which, like cricket, is being transmitted as bait to hook the middle classes!

There is no doubt, however, that such a two-tier system of world rugby would be possible logistically, on account of the relative speed of modern transport. Some years ago, again - with Ken Jones I am the longest-serving columnist in the whole of this great newspaper - I wrote a column saying that rugby football had yet to come to terms with the invention of the jet engine.

The point I was trying to make was that large aircraft were quite capable of transporting entire rugby squads with their hangers-on to the ends of the earth, and that consequently the era of the lengthy tour was dead. In particular there was no need to spend months in Australasia.

After the lapse of a decade or so, the rugby authorities finally caught up with the march of science. Indeed, in their enthusiasm for single-match encounters they resembled last autumn a maiden aunt who in middle age had suddenly discovered the joys of sex. The schedule for England players, who had a tough Five Nations in front of them, would have exhausted Casanova himself.

Now Clive Woodward, the England coach, is set to compound the errors of the autumn - though to be fair to him, the summer tour of Australasia and South Africa as well was devised by happily anonymous personages at Twickenham.

Keith Barwell, the Northampton owner, says that none of "his" players are going to be allowed to tour. Woodward says that no one will be picked for England's remaining matches unless he makes himself available for the summer expedition.

There is no doubt that the England players have contracts with their clubs. Lawrence Dallaglio, of Wasps, also has a contract, or the promise of one, with the Rugby Football Union. But is it an implied term of the players' contracts with their clubs that under International Board rules they must put country first. Only a High Court judge, I am afraid, can resolve that. Reluctant though I am to hand over money to the gentlemen in wigs, I hope a judge does pronounce.

I now look forward to a season of upsets, with England losing to Scotland and Ireland, and France to Wales. For Ireland v Wales in Dublin I shall be intellectually neutral although emotionally committed. But I shall not shed any tears if Wales lose. On their performance in Paris, Ireland certainly deserve to emerge from this Five Nations with at least one win and perhaps two.