Rugby Union / Five Nations Focus: Demise of England and France keeps boredom at bay: The avoidance of a two-country carve-up is good for a gloriously unpredictable championship. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
IN SOME people's scheme of things Saturday's Paris match between France and England was supposed, as they say at Parc des Princes, to be the denouement of the 1994 Five

Nations' Championship. But, quelle surprise, it is not - and that is the championship's very salvation.

So Ireland beat England and Wales beat France and the rather obvious idea that countries supporting rugby-playing populations given by the Guinness Rugby Union Fact Book as 375,000 (England) and 218,500 (France) should have a permanent advantage over those with 40,000 (Wales), 25,000 (Scotland) and 12,500 (Ireland) is exploded.

'England did what everyone feared they would do and got themselves organised - which obviously makes it difficult for everyone else,' Gerry Murphy, the winning coach at Twickenham, said. 'But to say there was going to be some sort of second division was at the very least premature and in fact I don't see it ever happening.

'There have been times when England have been dominant and so have France and Wales, but historically it isn't a fact and in any case the notion of this split in the championship presupposes that the rest are

going to sit there and do nothing.'

This is worthy of rejoicing when you consider what the Five Nations would have amounted to if the English and French had maintained the superiority (not to mention the air of superiority) they established during the ever-lengthening Will Carling captaincy era? BC (Before Carling) it was different.

Five would have equalled two plus three, because since Wales last won the Triple Crown - and even then they shared the title with France - only Scotland, with their 1990 Grand Slam, have interrupted the Anglo- French hegemony. France 1989, England 1991 and '92, France 1993. . . this is getting boring.

Which is why the fact that the

recently-established order has been overturned this season is good news for the non-parochial who have the welfare of this great competition at heart. OK, some of the rugby has been less than half-decent, let alone perfect, but the last thing rugby union should worry about is pleasing the Colin Wellands of this world. The matches are sold out and, whatever rugby league types may say, that is all the justification the northern code's progenitor needs, though the pounds 20m-plus bidding for the new TV contract conveniently reinforces the point. Look at it this way: Ireland play Scotland on Saturday with nothing much on it, but before its own full house it is every bit as

important as the Parisian affair.

But then this is the renewed beauty of the Five Nations. France v England, remarkably in view of recent rugby (union) history, is no longer decisive - even though, if Wales were to fail in their Triple Crown / Grand Slam quest at Twickenham on 19 March, it could yet determine the recipients of that unnecessary piece of silver frippery, the Five Nations' Trophy.

Murphy rightly points out that a rugby world restricted, at its most competitive point, to the French, English and the big southern- hemisphere countries would be dangerously circumscribed.

But this astonishing season has proved that it is not happening, not yet. 'I would have thought the Celtic fringe had certain things to offer, not only this championship but also world rugby,' Murphy said. 'In fairness, this probably applies to Wales more than to either Ireland or Scotland, because Wales have traditionally been a world power in rugby. They have great innate rugby skills but they lost their way for various reasons and now everyone with the good of the game at heart is happy to see them winning again.'

There is also the overriding - one might say overbearing - desire of Scotland, Ireland and Wales to put one over the English, which is always going to make it uncomfortable for men in white. They should regard it as a compliment but, as the narrow win over the Scots and equally narrow defeat by the Irish showed them, it is more like a complete pain.

This reflects character and breeding. Thus when Ireland beat England in Dublin last season the crowd invaded the pitch and chanted: 'You'll never beat the Irish'. Could you imagine the waxed jackets of Twickenham chanting 'You'll never beat the English' in equivalent circumstances? Of course not.

It is all to do with passion, see. 'When you think about their playing resources I suppose it's obvious who in theory should win all the time, but it doesn't work like that,' Alan Davies, the other victorious coach from 10 days ago, said.

'Unfortunately for those big nations, rugby football is about the 15 guys who go on the field, and the skill levels you bring to bear because you have such a huge nation are not remarkably different from those you can bring to bear if you have a smaller nation. And the levels of fitness you can bring to bear depend on the human beings you're dealing with.'

The Wales coach should know, because in his Nottingham days he was the England B coach. He detects a problem for England and France in the manner of their play - the apparent attempt to muscle their way to success just because they have physically larger forwards - and, in England's case, just in their manner. As he well knows from having been a Welsh exile in England during the rose-tinted 1970s, confidence can soon become over-confidence, which can soon become hubris.

'I did experience the total lack of humility that Welsh people had in those days when their team were winning, and England for some reason seem to have been working at this sort of psychology, an unapproachable type of image that the All Blacks generate. They haven't been doing themselves any favours because all it does is make others desperately keen to beat them.'

Do not forget that England did beat the All Blacks - which only goes to show how different the championship is. The Irish, least of all, would claim to be as proficient rugby players as the New Zealanders, but at Twickenham they achieved what 11 weeks earlier the All Blacks could not.

'The Five Nations is almost an anachronism and yet everyone else is very jealous of it,' Murphy said. 'It's played at the worst possible time of year but it's great days out and people just love coming to see it. It is, and despite the Anglo- French carve-up theory always has been, a gloriously unpredictable and illogical championship.'

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