Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship - Wings and a prayer for the future

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The temptation to regard the forthcoming Five Nations' Championship as a staging post en route to the World Cup rather than as a destination in itself will be stoutly resisted by all the participating countries and their connections. Two defeats in the first two matches might alter the message but at this stage, with expectation and hope on an equal footing, everyone has everything to play for.

The prize is well worth the winning. We have, of course, been down this road before during a decade which has been an almost unbroken celebration of Anglo-French dominance, but this time the notion that the tournament will have a seriously competitive edge is not so fanciful. The early- season visit of the Springboks has persuaded us, foolishly perhaps, that the game in this part of the world is not in such bad shape as we had thought. Or, if it is, then there is very little separating the rank bad from the simply mediocre.

To what extent the Springboks provided an accurate barometer of the home countries is hard to fathom. The world champions were undeniably a fine side, if not a great one, possessed of an iron will, an intimidating commitment and supreme self-confidence. They were also physically shattered by a brutally demanding diet of continuous Test rugby. Scotland, Ireland and Wales all had their moments against them, while England had their day.

Wales would have had theirs too had they retained their composure in those frenzied last seconds, but the experience of having played so combatively and with such style over a sustained period against the best side in the world has clearly done wonders for their confidence. It has also done much to restore their good name. Hooray for Henry the New Zealander whose magical powers of persuasion and motivation rank alongside the footballing wizardry of John, Edwards, JPR and other heroes of the past, who have made life for the present practitioners such a hell.

The Welsh possess many of the qualities required to succeed in the modern game. Their back row worked superbly against the Springboks with Scott Quinnell proving that his greatest days are not yet behind him and his best form is not just a distant memory decaying on some northern league field in England. But it was the performance that day of Colin Charvis which took many by surprise and it was largely the aggressive driving of the Welsh loose forwards which set the backs free. It was hard to remember an international match where the wings had so much room, and equally difficult to recall such a stunning first call to the colours as Shane Howarth's.

The importance in today's game of a penetrative counter-attacking full- back supported by two muscular and quick wings cannot be overstated. Those who cannot quite believe that Henry could consider switching Allan Bateman, by some distance the best centre in the country, to the wing have their answer.

Full-back is one of the areas at present troubling England, the land of plenty. Matt Perry, whose early promise has yet to be fulfilled, is so short of form and confidence that Clive Woodward would be taking a huge gamble where he to pick the Bath player for the Calcutta Cup in three weeks. Neither is Woodward exactly spoilt for choice at fly-half. He was roundly condemned for his observation that it would be a sad day for England were he forced to pick Joel Stransky. But his critics were missing the point that for all the South African's pre-eminence in the premiership, one has to question the standard of a competition which enables a player who was some time ago rejected by his own country to perform so brilliantly.

Woodward also has problems on the wing and, in Will Greenwood's absence, at centre. It is likely therefore that excessive demands will be made of England's pack. The way they answered all the questions against the South Africans and Tim Rodber's emergence as a positive force in the middle of the scrum and line-out augurs well, and despite their difficulties they are still favourites to win the championship. Home advantage against France is perhaps the most compelling argument in support of this high rating, although whether a trip to Ireland in their present state of euphoria can be considered an away banker is another matter.

The Irish have a pack that the Welsh, certainly, and all save England, would kill for. To be in a position to choose between Malcolm O'Kelly (when he recovers from yesterday's injury), Jeremy Davidson and Paddy Johns as the locks is luxury indeed. If only they had backs of the same quality. Warren Gatland, the coach, will after Ulster's heroics in Europe, almost certainly go for David Humphreys at fly-half in the hope that his more fluid style will get the best out of a back division who appear to be heavily reliant on Conor O'Shea. But if France, the visitors to Lansdowne Road on Saturday, can match the Irish up front then they will surely achieve the first part of their journey to an historic third consecutive Grand Slam.

This may yet be a prize too far for the Welsh but they have sound reason to believe that they will at least get off to a good start at Murrayfield on the same day. The political turmoil which has invaded every nook and cranny of the game has probably seeped deeper into the foundations in Scotland than anywhere else. The players in the two Super Districts have hardly been at the game's cutting edge in recent weeks and although clan New Zealand has taken root and appears to have established itself as part of Scotland's tribal heritage, the Scots have neither the power up front nor, even with Gregor Townsend in their ranks, the guile or the speed behind to trouble the best-marshalled defences.

On the other hand the Scots have the almost infinite capacity to surprise - to whit the dazzling rugby played by the Edinburgh Reivers in the European Cup-tie against Toulouse, which was deemed by many of those who saw it to be the best back play by any Scottish side for many years.

It is this, the glorious uncertainty of it all, that makes the Five Nations' Championship such an eternally intriguing tournament.