Rugby Union: Ireland worth a flutter but France still fancied

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The Independent Online
THE LATEST odds for the Five Nations' Championship are: England evens, France 6-5, Wales 9-1, Ireland 20-1 and Scotland 50-1. England are slightly, though not much, better value than they were a few weeks ago. The biggest surprise, to me at any rate, is that Ireland and Wales have not changed places, in view of Ulster's winning of the European Cup, London Irish's continuing success in English rugby and the Irish liking for taking a bet.

I should have expected the weight of Irish money to make the odds less generous. But then, I am not a betting man or really a gambler at all. For me the pain of losing is greater than the pleasure of winning. As it is such hard work to get hold of the stuff in the first place - money, I mean - it is silly to give it away to the gentlemen with the big cigars and the Gladstone bags.

As far as Ireland are concerned, the bookies may be wiser than we know. They usually are. Only three of Saturday's triumphant side in Dublin look like appearing there this Saturday in the match against France: Jonathan Bell, David Humphreys and Andy Ward. With Malcolm O'Kelly injured, the same number from Dick Best's London Irish will get in: the back three of Conor O'Shea, Justin Bishop and Niall Woods.

The injury to O'Kelly is not such a blow to the side as it might have been. Jeremy Davidson, who is by all accounts restored to full vigour at Castres, can move into the second row to partner Paddy Johns.

I must confess that if I were Warren Gatland, Ireland's New Zealand coach (New Zealanders are everywhere these days), I should be tempted to restore Simon Mason to the side for the metronomic kicking that wins matches, and play O'Shea in the centre with Bell.

Yet, in modern rugby the back three are as much a unit as the front row, the back row or the half-backs. O'Shea, Bishop and Woods have been playing so well for London Irish lately that it would be a pity to break the combination.

It is the kind of combination which Graham Henry, Wales' New Zealand coach, does not have at his disposal. His fellow-countryman Shane Howarth, another of those southern-hemisphere players who have suddenly discovered a convenient grandparent, is a fine attacking full-back, capable of winning a match on his own. But the wings are more doubtful propositions.

It was even being suggested before yesterday's announcement of the side that Henry would play Allan Bateman on the wing, retaining the Swansea combination of Mark Taylor and Scott Gibbs in the centre. This proposal was typical of Welsh selectors of old that we have come to know and love or, rather, laugh at. In Bateman you are lucky enough to have one of the best centres in Europe, if not the world. And what do you do with him? You play him on the wing, of course. What else?

Anyway, I am glad that Henry has resisted this suggestion, even if the wings he has chosen do not inspire an over-abundance of confidence. Dafydd James is a big, strong, courageous performer who is a natural centre. He has never appeared at ease on the wing. Apart from anything else, he is not fast enough for international rugby. Gareth Thomas, who is injured, is of a similar type but has managed the transition from centre, his original position, with more success.

The other wing, Matthew Robinson, I have not seen. He has been in the Swansea side only a matter of months. I wish him well, but he must count himself a fortunate young man. I wonder what is going through the mind of that other Swansea wing, Simon Davies. When Swansea last played South Africa, I saw him comprehensively outpace the visitors' defence, not once, but twice in the first half, when Swansea were in the lead. True they lost by 70-odd points in the second half, but that was not Davies' fault.

Davies has never been given a chance of any kind in the Welsh side. The wiseacres said of him, as they say of every really fast wing, that "his defence is suspect". They said it of Davies and Nigel Walker in Wales, of Andrew Harriman in England. They did not say it in Wales of Wayne Proctor, who can also shift. Even so, he is not in Saturday's side either.

The truth is that Henry has progressed a certain distance but no further. He has produced the spine of the side but little more. Still, I expect Wales to beat Scotland and France to beat Ireland who, however, remain the good value bet.

I am backing France for the Championship, none the less.

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