Rugby Union / Five Nations Focus: Rock-steady England ready to roll: The championship starts on Saturday and the game at large will benefit. Steve Bale reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE DEAR old Five Nations' Championship is the longest-running success story in international rugby, yet its validity - sometimes even its continuation - has been in question and even in doubt ever since that young upstart, the World Cup, was given its four-yearly focus.

All right, the championship, our championship, is these days subordinate to the other and bigger one. And yes, the Five Nations can provide the ideal and steady build-up to the next World Cup. But, believe me, 1995 will be the last thing on the minds of those who kick off this season's matches on Saturday.

When England play France at Twickenham and Scotland take on Ireland at Murrayfield, the objective will be the shortest of short term: to win that one game and go on to the next. Win the next and you can begin to think longer, all the way to the title, and then for the home-union players there is a Lions tour of New Zealand to cap it all.

By the time that is over, we will have gone all the way to the first week of July and the words 'World Cup' may not even have passed our lips more often than now and then. Why, even the French, who have no Lions tour but a visit to South Africa to contemplate, have abandoned long-termism. After an autumn of familiar turbulence, Les Cinq Nations is suddenly the be-all and end-all.

Pierre Berbizier, the coach of France, explained it thus on Rugby Special: 'Political factors led to a change in our priorities. When I started, this was a long-term objective to prepare for the 1995 World Cup. The politics led to a short-term objective to become competitive in the Five Nations.' Who was it who said politics and sport don't mix?

There is a warning in this for any country which was ever tempted to take championship matches, or any other Test match for that matter, as mere preludes to something else. Look at the French: all the good that came from the handsome defeat of the Springboks in the second Test in Paris in October was blown away by losing to Argentina with an experimental selection in Nantes in November.

It is the old story that the best long-term planning is the short- term expedient of winning the next match, which is why England cheerfully persist with timeworn performers who cannot conceivably have a part to play in 1995 but are still the best right now and so fully deserve their places against France and doubtless for the Lions as well.

Yet despite the inevitable and imminent turnover of players, which of the home countries will have the best chance then as now? Why, England. With a thrusting generation already on the way through, they enjoy the luxury of being able to introduce their newcomers - Martin Bayfield, for instance - one at a time. The idea that, like the Scots, Irish and French, they would change upwards of half the team at a time is now unthinkable.

Predicting an English championship is therefore easy, and it is England who, we may be sure, will contribute the lion's share of Lions. In fact, you could make a good case for as many as 20 Englishmen to go to New Zealand; indeed if England proceed to an unprecedented triple Grand Slam and England A finish off all opposition as England B did last season, the case will be irresistible.

This, though, would be the point at which 'politics', to use Berbizier's word, or at any rate a geographical imperative, would intrude. Even now, if you picked on merit you would be hard pushed to justify more than Nick Popplewell representing Ireland among the Lions. By the end of the championship, when the Irish may have been whitewashed, even Popplewell could be struggling.

Never mind, we can probably rely on it that when Messrs Morgan (England), Munro (Scotland), Reid (Ireland) and Richards (Wales) have done their selectorial work, none of the countries except England will be under-represented. It would not be a true Lions team otherwise, would it?

Which brings us back to the central theme of the Five Nations: winning. There is no point whatsoever to travelling hopefully to New Zealand with other than the very best that the British Isles have to offer. If, heaven forbid, the Lions do not, their arrival will be most unpleasant.

So the threat is, in a sense, internal. Meanwhile, the threat to England - and, by extension, English participation among the Lions - will come mainly from France, as ever, but also from the improving Welsh, though the rekindling of the dragon's fire still does not mean there are enough animals in the pack. England, by the way, have never won twice in a row in Cardiff.

For all his optimism, the new Scotland captain, Gavin Hastings, knows there is no substitute for experience (he has only to look at England) and in any case many critics north of the border do not yet share his assessment of the quality of his team. For the Irish, the banshee cussedness which has carried them through so many campaigns no longer suffices. Alas for them, quality is now all that counts.

Perhaps the greatest threat to England is psychological: the fact that for the rest the English match, like the Welsh match used to be, is the season's main event and the one they want to win above all. 'I know a lot of people are waiting for that day,' Brian Moore said, reflecting on the prospect of unwonted defeat. 'It's bound to happen at some point. We're dreading the day it does.'

The hooker's stomach still churns when he reflects on the beating England took from Scotland in the 1990 Grand Slam game, even if eight consecutive championship wins and English hegemony over European rugby have moderated his angst. The question now is whether this domination is good for rugby - to which I believe the answer is yes, because England have set higher standards to which all the rest, and that includes France, have to aspire.

In theory at least, the end product is that everyone becomes better; ergo the Five Nations' Championship becomes better. Provided this happens - and all four of the 1991 and '92 also-rans are working furiously to see that it does - rugby, which is to say the game at large in each country from shop window to basement, will be the beneficiary. Not bad when you consider that rugby union, courtesy of the World Cup but courtesy, too, of our annual international extravaganza, is already on a spectacular upward curve.

So when Antipodeans denigrate, as they sometimes have, the championship as the second division of world rugby, we should take it with due cynicism. More than half a million people will attend the 10 fixtures and if there had been the capacity, it would have been hundreds of thousands more.

In the process, something in excess of pounds 5m will be grossed. It is guaranteed box office, a guaranteed televisual treat for the many who cannot get tickets. The fact is Australians, New Zealanders and, I dare say, South Africans would love to have one of their own in their own hemisphere - and may one day do so. And that would be the Five Nations' ultimate accolade.

----------------------------------------------------------------- STEVE BALE'S PREDICTION ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .England 2 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .France 3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Wales 4 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Scotland 5 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Ireland -----------------------------------------------------------------

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE FACTS AND FIGURES FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1993 FIXTURES 16 January: England v France (Twickenham); Scotland v Ireland (Murrayfield). 6 February: Wales v England (Cardiff); France v Scotland (Paris). 20 February: Scotland v Wales (Murrayfield); Ireland v France (Dublin). 6 March: England v Scotland (Twickenham); Wales v Ireland (Cardiff). 20 March: Ireland v England (Dublin); France v Wales (Paris). ----------------------------------------------------------------- ENGLAND'S SLAM 1992 FINAL TABLE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts England 4 4 0 0 118 29 8 France 4 2 0 2 75 62 4 Scotland 4 2 0 2 47 56 4 Wales 4 2 0 2 40 63 4 Ireland 4 0 0 4 46 116 0 ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1992 RESULTS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Ireland . . . . . . . . . .15 Wales . . . . . . . . . . .16 Scotland . . . . . . . . . .7 England . . . . . . . . . .25 England . . . . . . . . . .38 Ireland. . . . . . . . . . .9 Wales. . . . . . . . . . . .9 France. . . . . . . . . . .12 France. . . . . . . . . . .13 England . . . . . . . . . .31 Ireland . . . . . . . . . .10 Scotland . . . . . . . . .18 England . . . . . . . . . .24 Wales. . . . . . . . . . . .0 Scotland . . . . . . . . .10 France . . . . . . . . . . .6 France. . . . . . . . . . .44 Ireland . . . . . . . . . .12 Wales . . . . . . . . . . .15 Scotland . . . . . . . . .12 -----------------------------------------------------------------

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE RECORDS FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Wales have won the title outright 21 times; England 20 times; Scotland 13, Ireland 10, France 9. ----------------------------------------------------------------- GRAND SLAM WINNERS ----------------------------------------------------------------- England (10): 1913, 1914, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1928, 1957, 1980, 1991, 1992. Wales (8): 1908, 1909, 1911, 1950, 1952, 1971, 1976, 1978. France (4): 1968, 1977, 1981, 1987. Scotland (3): 1925, 1984, 1990. Ireland (1): 1948. ----------------------------------------------------------------- TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS ----------------------------------------------------------------- England (17): 1883, 1884, 1892, 1913, 1914, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1928, 1934, 1937, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1980, 1991, 1992. Wales (17): 1893, 1900, 1902, 1905, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1950, 1952, 1965, 1969, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1988. Scotland (10): 1891, 1895, 1901, 1903, 1907, 1925, 1933, 1938, 1984, 1990. Ireland (6): 1894, 1899, 1948, 1949, 1982, 1985. ----------------------------------------------------------------- SUCCESSIVE GRAND SLAMS ----------------------------------------------------------------- England: 1913 and 1914, 1923 and 1924, 1991 and 1992. Wales: 1908 and 1909. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

Comments