Rugby Union: How Gatland's folly relieved me of my lolly

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The Independent Online
"OUR NEW Zealanders are better than your New Zealanders." So might a joyful Scotsman have said to a disconsolate Welshman, sobbing gently into his half-pint in an Edinburgh bar on Saturday night. Scotland had a New Zealand full-back, centre and flanker, while Wales boasted a full- back and a coach. The Scots might also have added a New Zealand wing had they chosen him.

As we know, rugby supporters do not talk in this way. Nor would it have been a fair reflection on the match. Wales were beaten fair and square in the forwards, Scotland having a quicker back row, which surprised me, and a stronger front five, which did not.

It is possible, though not perhaps profitable, to speculate on what would have happened if David Young and Craig Quinnell had been fit. I thought Wales would win even in their absence, but was insufficiently confident to put any money on the outcome. As I wrote last week, Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, had produced the spine of a side but has some way to go.

Gareth Thomas's presence would not have made any difference either. Dafydd James took his chance well, while Matthew Robinson made several almost- breaks and otherwise did everything that was asked of him except prevent Scotland's first try - though that really came from Shane Howarth's understandable, even excusable, inability to make a clean catch from Douglas Hodge's kick- off.

Hodge is now out of the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham in 11 days' time and perhaps for longer. It is no disrespect to Hodge to say that his absence strengthens Scotland's chances. He is a tidy enough player but is not Gregor Townsend. No one could call Townsend tidy. With the Lions in South Africa in 1997 he was famous for having his kicks charged down.

But he is also touched by genius. With Gary Armstrong to keep him on the paths of virtue, the Scots all of a sudden, by chance, have a Lions- class half-back pairing. Or, they can have one if they want it: for it is being suggested that Bryan Redpath, who was injured for Saturday's match, should return at Twickenham.

I think Jim Telfer and his two colleagues would be better advised to retain Armstrong, to fit in another Lion, Alan Tait, somewhere in the back five even if Jamie Mayer returns at centre, and to leave the kicking duties to Kenny Logan.

Ah, kicking. It brings us to what happened in Dublin. Here I claim some prescience. As Lord Beaverbrook once remarked, if you do not blow your own trumpet no one is going to blow it for you. I suggested that Simon Mason should be picked at full-back for his place-kicking and that Conor O'Shea could be accommodated in the centre with either Ron Henderson or Jonathan Bell as his partner. In default of this arrangement (which, to be honest, I thought unlikely), I assumed Niall Woods would be on the left wing, not only part of London Irish's back three but also taking the place kicks in preference to David Humphreys.

I could not imagine that Warren Gatland, Ireland's New Zealand coach, would do anything else. But, astonishingly, he did. When he could have been putting over goals for Ireland (though Mason would have been even more reliable) Woods was playing for London Irish against Gloucester at Sunbury, scoring a try and kicking a conversion.

It is, admittedly, impossible to say that in Saturday's conditions Mason would have reproduced the faultless performance he gave on the previous Saturday at the same ground. Still, it was extraordinary folly by Gatland to go into the match without either him or Woods. For once, that is not hindsight on my part and it is Gatland rather than Humphreys that I blame for losing me money.

Not long after the war, the then editor of the Guardian, the great A P Wadsworth, wrote a leading article on the day before a general election advising his readers to vote Liberal. Next day he told his colleagues that, having done his duty to the paper's readers (and no doubt to the paper's proprietors as well), he was now off to do his duty to himself. So he trotted to the polling station to vote Labour.

Likewise I advise my readers to back France for the Five Nations. I then promptly backed Ireland at 20-1. It seemed a good bet. Indeed, it was a good bet. But despite the talk of Keith Wood and others about the Triple Crown, I do not now expect to see any return on what the bookmakers like to call my investment.