Rugby Union: Five nations draw strength from northern highlight

Chris Hewett, Rugby Union Correspondent, believes there is more to the championship than two contenders and three Celtic also-rans
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The Independent Online
FIVE nations, three also-rans and just two live contenders amount to one complete waste of time, it seems. You do not need to listen too carefully to hear the Jeremiahs lamenting the terminal demise of Europe's so-called international showpiece. "They should rename it the Five Nations' Turkey Shoot," they wail. "It's worse than Scottish football. At least the Jocks have three sides worth watching."

And on the face of it, the old championship is on its knees. A 10-match tournament it may be, but all the important issues are now annually decided during the course of a single 80-minute rumble in either London or Paris. England and France, les Rosbifs versus les Tricolores, world-class power against world-class power. While the annual cross-Channel barney is taking ever-deeper root in the game's psyche, the Celts are increasingly dismissed as little more than hedge trimmings.

The Five Nations appears to be faced with a credibility gap wider than Thomas Castaignede's ego and judging by some of this season's one-horse-race results - Wales, supposedly the most talented and resourceful of the Celtic trio, leaked 111 points to England and France - there are no obvious ways of closing it. According to Jim Telfer, who always tells it like it is, the Scots played "pretty well" for long passages of their games against the two heavyweights. A fat lot of good it did them. England scored a record 34 points at Murrayfield, the French a record 51.

Yet it is still possible, just, to mount a defence of the championship, to paint a future more interesting and more competitive than the deadly version offered with increasing vehemence by subscribers to the "forgone conclusion" theory. To do so, we must step backwards rather than forwards. Back in history to a time when English rugby teams were the butt of Celtic jokes - some of them very funny, it has to be said - and all the serious talk was of Wales and France.

As the swinging 1960s spliffed their way into the platform-shoed '70s, it was no great shock to see a Welsh or French side put five, often six tries past England and had those tries counted for five points rather than the three then available, the final tallies would have been in the 40-point bracket, 1990s style.

Indeed, the '70s also saw England lose five successive matches against Ireland and four on the trot to the Scots and while the red rose selectors got their act sufficiently together to give Bill Beaumont the personnel he needed to take a Grand Slam in 1980, it was not until Geoff Cooke took over the reins late in the decade that the sea-change occurred.

Cooke applied the basic tenets of professionalism long before the "P" word was considered acceptable in polite rugby society and there can be little doubt that the rest of Europe, France included, have been playing catch-up on the organisational front ever since. While Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux, two high-minded rugby intellects, have finally put the French on an equal footing, the Celts remain a country mile behind.

Yet there are green shoots of progress to the north and west of the Five Nations landscape. Agreed, Ireland were whitewashed, but they might easily have won three of their four games and on their visit to Twickenham last weekend, they proved more than a match for the English forwards. Scotland's A team claimed a remarkable second-string Slam - proof positive that their playing base is beginning to expand - and with Telfer and Ian McGeechan in tandem once again, they can move forward with confidence. Derrick Lee, Shaun Longstaff and Adam Roxburgh were among the finds of the campaign and although their scrummage remains cringingly lightweight, they played all four matches without Tom Smith, the best loose-head in Britain.

And Wales? The valleys will reverberate to the gnashing of teeth for a good while yet, for the French inflicted untold damage on their hosts' self- esteem at Wembley on Sunday. Yet Welsh deficiencies against both title contenders were cruelly magnified by southern hemisphere referees whistling merrily to the tune of Super 12 and there is no guarantee that the officials concerned, Colin Hawke of New Zealand and Peter Marshall of Australia, will be allowed to operate such a laissez-faire policy at next year's World Cup.

For all the dismissive vibes radiating from the England dressing-room, the tournament remains an indispensable breeding ground for new talent and fresh ideas. Clive Woodward has blooded Phil Vickery, seen an early return on his investment in Matt Perry and integrated Jonny Wilkinson, a phenomenally gifted teenager, into his squad. He has also seen Neil Back blossom into a linking flanker of genuine Test clout and savoured Will Greenwood's cementing of an automatic place in a high-class midfield.

But it is the French who have used the championship more profitably than anyone. It is hard to conceive in the light of Sunday's events that they conceded a half-century of points to the Springboks as recently as last November, but Skrela and Villepreux have sifted through the ashes and constructed a vibrant new side packed with pace, passion and unlimited potential.

Take Marc Lievremont, at 31 the elder of the Tricolores' back-row brothers, and Philippe Bernat-Salles, the 28-year-old wing from Pau, out of the equation and it seems entirely possible that the 1998 Grand Slam vintage will make it all the way to the 2003 World Cup.

"We are young, but we have grown together through this tournament and made a team of ourselves," said Castaignede after giving the Welsh the mother of all run-arounds at the weekend. Given that there were tears of emotion in his eyes, it was reasonable to assume that the new shooting star of European rugby considered the Five Nations anything but an irrelevance.