Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship: England class to test mettle of Wales' revival: Welsh look to narrow the gap by clearing their touchlines while French lighten up with promise of flair

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The Independent Online
THESE past few days, while the Welsh have been spreading their disinformation about the England team and talking up their own renaissance, have taken Geoff Cooke way, way back - to Parc des Princes 1988, his first experience of international management.

This afternoon's 99th meeting of Wales and England at the Arms Park carries eerie echoes of that France-England game. To try to give his players confidence, Cooke talked a good game: for precisely the same reason, his Welsh counterparts are doing it, too.

The question to be answered is whether Alan Davies and Robert Norster, Wales's coach and manager, are right to imagine on the one hand that England are in decline even after winning all seven games since the World Cup final 15 months ago or, on the other, that Wales have at last reached the point of reasserting former superiority over their oldest rivals.

In this debate, Cooke is irrefutable. 'For a revival to get under way, they have to start winning games,' the England manager said. Which, in fact, is what Wales have done. Remember, it is only two years since the Welsh endured their first Five Nations whitewash, going on to humiliation in Australia and early departure from the World Cup.

Put in this context, last season's wins over Ireland and Scotland were evidence of breakneck progress. But once you set this against England's World Cup final, a double Grand Slam and three victories already this season, the context becomes inexorably more modest.

'Look at what England have done compared with what Wales have done; we're obviously doing something right because we are winning matches,' Cooke said yesterday while his players were completing their preparation at the Cardiff University playing fields. (Wales preferred to train in secret.)

As for the Welsh revival: 'It hasn't happened, has it? If they beat us, they can justifiably claim a revival. But until that happens they are just talking about it.' Which is more or less what Cooke himself was doing five years ago, when England were squirming from an earlier World Cup embarrassment.

'If I were in Alan and Bob's situation I'm sure I'd be doing exactly the same,' he said. 'We'd be trying to fill our players with confidence and belief in their ability - and there's no question that Wales have more ability than their results have shown.

'It does take me back. It's very similar to the things we were saying to the English side before they went out in Paris in our first game, and they went out and played like heroes. But they still lost.'

If Wales were to lose today by the same score, 10-9, it would probably be regarded here as a triumph (and they would still lead the series 47-40). Cooke claims he would be happy, too. 'I will be satisfied, in a way, just to win by a point.' This should not be taken too literally, though the England manager acknowledges that improvement is needed.

'We know it's going to be a heck of a game. We're going to have to play at 100 per cent of our best to get a win,' Cooke said. Last weekend, he estimated that England had played at between 60 and 70 per cent of their best in defeating Canada, South Africa and France.

If they were to reach 100 per cent - perfection which Will Carling, the captain, specifically ruled out on Thursday - then heaven help Wales. If the strong spine of England's pack, ball-users as well as ball-winners, could not be buckled by the likes of the Springboks and French, it is impossible to imagine it will happen against Wales.

And that would mean a second step towards an unprecedented third consecutive Grand Slam, a piece of history not even the Arms Park witnessed during various Welsh golden eras. The difference this time compared with 1991 is that at least Wales have a chance where there was none.

Rugby's tactical fragmentation under assault from the new laws has worked against those, such as England and Australia, who prospered under the old laws and enabled other countries, not least Wales, to narrow the gap. Or widen it, in the case of the Arms Park touchlines . . .

The advertising hoardings are being moved as far as possible from the touchline so that the Welsh team, who believe they have an advantage in pace, can keep the game moving by taking as many quick throw-ins as possible. A rare example of rugby's ever more overt commercialism being subordinated.

Today's game will be watched by 75 million television viewers and will gross pounds 1.92m for the Welsh Rugby Union (a timely windfall to distract attention from endemic internal dissension). All 570 official corporate-hospitality packages (ugh) have been sold at pounds 385 a time - which the WRU claims is the highest price for any UK sporting event this year.

This is big business, fabulous exposure, yet it will be the fixture's last under British Gas sponsorship. How many out there knew, let alone cared, that this was the Gas Challenge? No? Exactly. The match needs a sponsor like any other but in rugby football, Wales and England will never need more than an ancient enmity.

Bayfield's new life,

Evans moves up, page 48

Jon Webb remembers, page 33

(Photograph omitted)