15 France v Ireland (Paris)
Wales v Scotland (Cardiff)
5 Scotland v England (Murrayfield)
Ireland v Wales (Lansdowne Road)
19 England v Ireland (Twickenham)
Wales v France (Cardiff)
5 France v England (Paris)
Ireland v Scotland (Dublin)
19 England v Wales (Twickenham)
Scotland v France (Murrayfield)
IT TOOK a telephone call to Scotland to put into perspective the altered state of rugby union. I had some information about an open- side flanker, playing overseas, who had Scottish antecedents and who might, at some future date, be of interest to the national selectors. The first question was not whether he could tackle, or how fast he was to the loose ball, or how good were his hands. 'How tall is he?' I was asked.
At a fraction over six feet, this particular individual may never even make it as far as the parade ring because we have entered the year, and the era, of the giraffe. And no longer is this once awkward and ungainly creature confined to the second row. The Irish and the Welsh have already declared their hands for next Saturday, and the smallest of the back five forwards is Llanelli's Mark Perego, who is 6ft 1in. He may yet be the shortest in the championship, because the French seem likely to go for a back row triumvirate of Benetton, Cecillon and Benazzi, and England, when they enter the arena in three weeks' time, will surely do so with the back row whose heroic deeds against the All Blacks could well have established a line in perpetuity.
Of one thing we can be sure, and that is that the decisive battles in the forthcoming Five Nations' Championship will be fought at the line-out. Once again, it seems, the supporters enrolled in the Neil Back fan club are doomed to disappointment, and Back himself must be close to despair. I doubt that he will ever win a cap in an international of importance.
The best news for England is that the tortuous course of rehabilitation set for the stricken Martin Bayfield appears to have cured and not killed him. With almost as many as one-and-a-half line-outs for every scrummage per game, he will be one of the most influential players in the championship, around whom England will base their strategy and against whom opponents will have to conjure up all manner of devious ploys. The England scrum is reported to be vulnerable. I'm not so sure about that, but if it is, then only the French and the Irish have the weaponry to expose it.
The Irish, with their props Nick Popplewell and the volatile Peter Clohessy, have the scrummage and, if they can get 80 minutes rather than 50 seconds out of Neil Francis, they will also have the makings of a line-out. Borne aloft by their two championship victories last season and, in the hope that there is still room for romance in a game being serially bludgeoned into submission by its leviathans, Ireland might just surprise us all.
At the very least, by returning to basics, they will apply the kind of disruptive pressure that pains and frustrates opponents and hustles them into error. They lack a penetrative runner in the centre but they do have Eric Elwood who, quite apart from the excellence so far of his general play, is, along with Thierry Lacroix, the most reliably accurate goal-kicker in the championship. Elwood is now confronted by the problem which has faced most players in their second season, and that is to come up with something new. After his initial success he will be a marked man, and it will be a true measure of his quality if he can keep one step ahead of the game and his markers.
Watching the French run through their fitness drills in Toulouse before Christmas, it was impossible not to be impressed by the supple athleticism of their big men. Roumat, Merle and Benazzi, all of whom are 6ft 6in plus, were clearing hurdles with the flowing elegance of thoroughbred backs. Even in defeat in the second Test against Australia, the sweeping drives of the French pack were breathtaking. But they are missing Laurent Cabannes in the loose and, as they showed against the Australians, they have problems in the line-out.
Their main target man is Roumat, with Benazzi, who could be playing out of position on the flank, as back-up. Still, they have two games, against Ireland in Paris on Saturday and Wales in Cardiff, before Armageddon. Much as they would relish it, France cannot expect England to kick away such appetising possession at Parc des Princes as they did at Twickenham against the All Blacks. The French, even without the irreplaceable Serge Blanco, are still the best counter-attackers in the world.
If the game between France and England on 5 March is being viewed at this distance as the championship decider, a wooden spoon is already hanging over next Saturday's match in Cardiff. The artful dodgers of Wales have become thieves and vagabonds, absorbing so much from other rugby cultures that they have completely lost their own identity. Who in today's side are the spiritual descendants of Gould, Owen and Bancroft? Ieuan Evans and Tony Clement have the intuitive skills that we associate with Welsh rugby at its best, but it took the Barbarians to release Clement in all his majesty against the All Blacks last month.
The Scots have tended to rely less on intuition than cussedness and fighting spirit, qualities which were conspicuously absent during last November's slaughter at Murrayfield. It remains to be seen how deep are the scars left by the All Blacks.
It is a sign of the Scots' desperation and their lack of resources that the second-row player Andy Reed has been recalled to the squad with such indecent haste after injury. It would be a strange tactic to include him in the squad if the Scots have no intention of playing him against Wales, but what little rugby he has played this season bears no resemblance to the kind of game he can expect next Saturday. Few believe that the Scots are as bad as their performance that day although there are still the numbskulls who consider that a half-decent resu1t against England will restore the lustre to the Scottish game.
Scotland's problems require more than the cosmetic veneer of one or two good results, but in the short term they have to cobble together something from an inconclusive trial and the devastation left by the All Blacks - 'more stiffs in the Scottish pack than in an episode of Taggart' said one wag after that humiliation. We shall see.
DESPITE the black hole left by the New Zealanders, Scotland can be expected to make a more spirited defence of their honour in the championship. They have their hard matches at home, but will look to their visits to Cardiff and Dublin to gain a respectable finish in the table. They have scrummage and line- out difficulties and a tactical dilemma apparent by the inclusion in the squad of both Craig Chalmers and Gregor Townsend, fly-halves of contrasting style. But the Scots are better poachers than gamekeepers.
Strengths: They might come from adversity and the vivid memory of the All Blacks. Gavin Hastings is still the best full-back in the world.
Weaknesses: Scrummage difficulties against the All Blacks did not appear to have eased during the trial and could still be a problem. Lack of creative skill in the threequarters puts additional strain on Gavin Hastings, unless the Scots opt to play both Chalmers and Townsend, and give the latter his head at inside centre.
Star Player: Rob Wainwright.
THERE are many who insist that Wales are on the mend despite their supine performance against Canada. Intrigue off the field continues to be as damaging to morale as results on it, and it is doubtful whetherAlan Davies would survive a defeat next Saturday. The selection of eight Llanelli men in the midst of what is hardly a vintage season is a surprise. In the absence of Scott Gibbs, the selectors have gone for sturdy reliability in midfeld. Neil Jenkins has yet to convince his critics that he is a fly-half of international stature.
Strengths: A reasonable line-out built around Gareth Llewellyn. The solid virtues of Phil Davies and the raw promise of Scott Quinnell lends authority and abrasiveness to the pack.
Weaknesses: The experience of John Davies on one of his previous outings against France does not bode well for the Welsh scrummage. The selectors have gambled with their back row and have no specialist open side. Rupert Moon's tactical aberrations at scrum-half were ruinous against Canada.
Star Player: Scott Quinnell.
AFTER a dismal run of defeats, hope has returned to the Irish game based on the victories over Wales and England last year and, less justifiably, over Romania earlier this season. Injuries have hampered their preparation and selection, and the back row are short of pace. Like Scotland, Ireland need to have all their players operating at peak efficiency if they are to create a stir. Neil Francis and Eric Elwood are two of the key players in this respect. Their game plan will be to unsettle opponents and profit from the resultant mistakes.
Strengths: Potentially, the Irish have the best scrummage in the championship. Tireless defence and Simon Geoghegan's finishing power. Authority at fly-half and accurate goal- kicking.
Weaknesses: Disrupted by injuries, the selectors have been forced to field an experimental back row, which is far from the ideal blend. Michael Bradley's pass can be erratic under pressure and opponents will see this as a way of reducing Elwood's influence.
Star Player: Eric Elwood.
A SHARED series against Australia, the world champions, earlier in the season has done their stock no harm despite the margin of their defeat in Paris. Even without Laurent Seigne, the French scrummage will be formidable, but it will be more difficult for them to paper over the cracks in their line-out. Pierre Berbizier's likely preference for Aubin Hueber at scrum-half will be a mildly controversial one given the present form of Fabian Galthie, but the French backs, although short of genuine speed on the wings, have the creative skills to break down all but the most determined of defences.
Strengths: Scrummage, forward mobility, defence and goalkicking.
Weaknesses: No flyer off the side of the scrum, but in this, France are not alone and are therefore less likely to be exposed in the loose. Superb midfield defence can be occasionally unhinged by frailty at long stop. The line-out is a major concern, but against all but the best, the French have a habit of coping.
Star player: Philippe Benetton.
HOW good are they? Are they the slayers of the All Blacks or the vanquished of last season? They would do well to remember both experiences, one as a hedge against complacency, the other to sustain the confidence and conviction which crushed New Zealand. Joint favourites with France, England nevertheless go into the championship with uncertainty about their scrummage and lingering doubts at full-back. Kyran Bracken, who might have been the find of the season, looks as if he will have to sit most of this one out, which will persuade England to keep the tight matches on the tightest of reins.
Strengths: A line-out offering a wide range of options. A physically impressive back row and defensively well organised. Finishing power behind the scrum.
Weaknesses: The scrummage occasionally came under pressure from the All Blacks. Jonathan Callard, who was given an easy baptism at Twickenham, will have to take more accurate flak in the weeks ahead.
Star player: Martin Bayfield.