England are still poor value, as they usually are, presumably because the bookmakers take account both of the money which has already been (as they like to say) invested and of the money which they anticipate will be. France are surely the cautious man's (or woman's) bet, while Wales are worth a flutter.
My native land are, for once, entering the competition with a reasonably settled team, for which the new coach, Graham Henry, can take credit whatever happens in 1999. There are problems on the left wing, but then, for no reason I can see, that position has always presented difficulties in Wales. Henry has also to acquire a loose-head prop of international class.
I read somewhere the other day that what Wales needs is a new front row. This is more than a little unfair to the abilities of David Young at tight- head and of Jonathan Humphreys, Barrie Williams and Garin Jenkins as hookers. All of them could go - some have already gone - on a Lions trip without disgracing the party. I blame Cardiff for preferring Andrew Lewis at loose- head and shunting Lyndon Mustoe between the two prop positions. Mustoe has, like many players, suffered for his versatility.
Henry has put together a good back row - Colin Charvis, Scott Quinnell and Martyn Williams have long been available - and unpicked the lock problem by calling up Craig Quinnell, as I had been urging for some time, and moving Chris Wyatt from No 8, as the England coach, Clive Woodward, has done with Tim Rodber.
Though there has been much gloomy talk of Woodward's problems, despite the win over South Africa, he is in reality in much the same happy position as Henry. The difference is that, whereas Henry has reached it through a combination of an acute rugby intelligence with ordinary common sense, Woodward has a profusion of goodish players at his disposal and four outstanding performers in Jeremy Guscott, Martin Johnson, Law-rence Dallaglio and Neil Back.
Woodward will presumably stick with Matt Perry at full-back. As I wrote last week, his only genuine problem is at outside-half. The most interesting news of the week was that Joel Stransky was keen to play for England in the World Cup. But Woodward has said that he would not pick him. In any case Stransky is not qualified 'til Septem-ber 1999. A correspondent points out that last week I erred about his age: he was born on 6 January 1967, which makes him 31, not 34. Apologies all round.
There is one other matter on which I would like to comment. The International Rugby Board is meeting in Dublin this week. One item on the agenda is the English clubs' challenge to the Rugby Football Union in the European Court. The IRB seems to believe that the RFU could and should have prevented this move by the clubs - that it has been lax in maintaining good order and rugby discipline in England.
One of the board's luminaries is Vernon Pugh. He is a former pupil of my old school, the Amman Valley Grammar School, Ammanford. He is also a QC. I should have expected him to advise the IRB to follow a more prudent course.
Admittedly there is no compulsion on any person or organisation to assert what is claimed to be a legal right in the courts. It does not follow from this that a third party is entitled to try to dissuade the aggrieved person or organisation from asserting that right. On the contrary: the House of Lords has held that such an attempt at dissuasion can constitute a contempt of court and is punishable accordingly.
What is involved here - what the international board wishes, even requires, the RFU to do - amounts to considerably more than an attempt at dissuasion such as would be made by a newspaper, say, in urging a rich plaintiff not to pursue a poor defendant. The board is asking the RFU to use its coercive powers to restrain the clubs from going to law, as they are legally entitled to do.
Certainly they are going to law in Europe rather than in the High Court in London. But under the European Communities Act 1972, European law is not only part of United Kingdom law but, in cases of conflict, supersedes it.
It is hard not to conclude that the IRB is urging the RFU to commit a contempt of court and, in so doing, is itself guilty of contempt.Reuse content