Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship - Celts in the mood for an uprising

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The Independent Online
FOR THE Celts, the first priority in the Five Nations' Championship is massacre-avoidance which I am confident they can achieve. I am not so sure that one of them can go further and actually win the thing but I do believe there's a chance of that happening. Wales and Ireland, especially, have it in them to throw up a surprise or two.

England and France are the obvious favourites but a lot has happened since the pair of them stuck a total of 149 points on the other three in last year's championship, when France took the title. There is a new flow of confidence running through last season's victims.

We will be in a better position to judge whether that will be sufficient to upset the form book when Ireland play France at Lansdowne Road on Saturday. I'm not ignoring the fascination of Wales' visit to Murrayfield but the success of the Five Nations, and maybe its future importance, will be judged on how much trouble the smaller countries can cause.

For France to have to go to Dublin is a stiff challenge for their first match. Ireland, like the rest, took great heart from their performance against South Africa and have had a further boost from Ulster's run in the European Cup. Although Ireland finished up with the wooden spoon last year they had wretched luck. They lost by a point to Scotland and were only two points short of France after a great performance in Paris. It is always difficult to judge how the French will start off the Five Nations. They can be caught cold and there's no more chilling place than Lansdowne Road if the Irish forwards get fired up.

They've been struggling behind the scrum recently in the Five Nations. Neither the outside-half nor the two centres have been creative enough to make best use of the opportunities created by the pack. With Ulster's David Humphreys press- urising Eric Elwood, we may see a distinct improvement in that.

Certainly, I would play the London Irish back three of Justin Bishop, Conor O'Shea and Niall Woods. They've been bang on form and have benefited from playing with the centre Brendan Venter, and half-backs Steve Bachop and Kevin Putt. We've heard a lot of criticism of the number of foreign players at London Irish but you can't argue with the high standard of play that has resulted and this is a great advantage to the Irish players among them.

With England also having to visit Dublin, the Irish will never have a better chance to spring a shock. They play Wales at Wembley which is by no means the disadvantage that playing at Cardiff used to be.

Despite the lack of home atmosphere, I expect Wales to build on the excellent progress they've made under Graham Henry and they should be too strong for Scotland who have been more out of sorts than any of them recently. They have been hard hit by injuries over the past few days and they will particularly miss the centre Jamie Mayer who has been performing very well with Edinburgh Reivers. Mayer and John Leslie are a formidable partnership and could have had a big say against the centre strength of the Welsh. Scotland have also got to get their traditional rucking game going to have a fighting chance. They looked lightweight against South Africa.

If the Welsh front five can get it right from the start, Scotland could be in trouble. I'd like to see the Quinnell brothers running with the ball in their hands and for them to improve their workrate. We are also expecting a lot from the pivotal pair Robert Howley and Neil Jenkins at half-back. Jenkins has shown signs of improvement in his decision-making and distribution but he needs to take more responsibility from Howley, who is such a whole-hearted player that he does too much. He should share the responsibility more with his partner. It will increase Jenkins' confidence and give the opposition back row far more to worry about.

With the winger Gareth Thomas unlikely to play through injury, it will be interesting who Henry picks in his place. He also has a problem about who will partner Scott Gibbs in the centre, Allan Bateman or Mark Taylor.

Bateman is the better player but Taylor partners Gibbs at club level, which is a big factor. Henry might solve that by putting Bateman on the wing where he can be very effective. I'm surprised Wayne Proctor is not in the squad, because he has a bit of toe and I'm sorry that Anthony Sullivan hasn't had the opportunity to show his worth. It is good to see that he is getting a run-out with the A team, because Wales could do with his pace.