Rugby Union: First game to decide first place

Jonathan Davies expects England's new confidence to win the day in an early decider
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The Independent Online
FAR FROM me to suggest that in these commercial days the organisers of the Five Nations' Championship should go in for stage management but I must say that it is preferable in any tournament to end with your best match - not start with it.

With due respect to the others, France v England in Paris on Saturday is going to decide the winners of the title. In fact, whoever wins will go off looking confidently for the Grand Slam and, although I think Wales have the potential to cause a shock, there is not much standing in the way.

I suspect that England will be the team who find themselves in that all- conquering position. Much as I respect the French, the English have the edge in form and, for once, the feared home advantage may not work for France this time. The match is being staged at their new Stade de France which is a magnificent place by all accounts but which has yet to be tested for its inspirational qualities.

Will the new arena frighten the opposition as the Parc des Princes once did? Will the French find the new surroundings just as strange as the English will? These are important questions with teams as evenly matched as these.

The strength of the French is that most of their top sides play the same sort of game epitomised by Brive and Toulouse. It means that you can pick new players with confidence because you knew they are well versed in the system. So I wouldn't normally be worried about a couple of new caps. Unfortunately, one of the players missing through injury is Abdelatif Benazzi and he is as near to irreplaceable as anyone in the championships.

Others injured include Philippe Saint-Andre and Emile Ntamack while the selectors have dropped Thierry Lacroix, Laurent Cabannes and Olivier Merle. For all their strength in depth, the French will not start as confident and composed as the English. This will apply particularly at forward. The English front five look tremendous. They've always been big but now they've added agility and footballing ability. As for the back row, you can rattle off six names of excellent contenders without thinking.

I thought the English forward strength shone through in the Saracens- Leicester game last weekend. It was one of the best games I've seen this season. But as well as it displayed forward strength, it also revealed the England weakness. All the decision makers on the pitch were foreign. This is going to be a long-term problem and they must be praying that Paul Grayson can at least fill the outside-half role effectively.

Although the French will have the edge at half back in the Castaignede- Carbonneau partnership, I still believe England have great potential among their backs and their confidence will be so high after the performance against New Zealand.

Scotland and Ireland have too many problems to have any optimism about their chances. With a couple of players prominent in English rugby, Ireland should turn out a big, strong pack and although they look weak behind the scrum I think they'll beat Scotland who are going through a very bad patch.

I can't put my finger on what is wrong, particularly after seeing their second-half performance against South Africa. The Scottish defeat in Italy last week confirmed the state they are in. It was only a couple of interception tries that kept the score looking far worse.

They don't seem to have any direction behind the scrum and I fancy the way that Gregor Townsend plays is part of the trouble. He doesn't control the game as he should. He is such a good player he has to be in the team but not in a position of command. Perhaps Gary Armstrong can do what is necessary.

As for Wales, I agree with Jeremy Guscott's comment that our back players are second to none. But how can we make the best of them? Wales have the chance of a game against Italy this week to run through their repertoire before they begin the Five Nations. I agree with the selectors that we have to make use of the talents of both Neil Jenkins and Arwel Thomas and the only way we can do this is to play Jenks at full-back. It is not his favoured position but it is necessary for the team's balance. Let's hope he can overcome his shoulder injury and play.

Jenks lacks a bit of pace coming into the line but Wales can overcome this by utilising the wingers more to switch roles with him in attack. You have to vary your options to win these days and the team that can think on its feet during a match will always have a chance.

It is regarded as a disadvantage that Wales have to play each match away this season but, when a team is not having a good time, playing at home increases the pressure and the expectations.

Kevin Bowring's honeymoon period as coach is over and Wales must win at least two games. If the Welsh front five can secure their own ball, I think they could do well.

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