Rugby Union: It is folly to begin the season with its crucial encounter
Tuesday 03 February 1998
If Wales were playing their home matches at the old National Stadium instead of at Wembley, I would have fancied them to bring off a surprise, even with their somewhat makeshift pack. As things are I agree, both with the bookies and with Jonathan Davies in the Independent on Sunday, that the real contest is between France and England, as it has been throughout the 1990s.
I also agree with Davies that in a commercial age - indeed, in any age - it is folly to begin the international season with what will almost certainly prove to be its crucial encounter.
There are two ways of approaching the compilation of these fixtures. One is to revert to the traditional order, whereby France played Scotland, for instance, on the first Saturday of the new year, and the other countries similarly followed their hallowed pattern. The other way is to take account of current form (by which I mean form over roughly a five-year span) and to save up what look like being the decisive matches for the last weekend.
For this season, I have to remind myself, even if I do not have to remind my readers, Five Nations matches are being played on Sundays as well as on Saturdays. But in a fashion typical of the organisation of rugby union football, the pattern is not being imposed consistently and seems to have no rhyme or reason about it.
Thus on Saturday there are three internationals (one of them the friendly between Wales and Italy at Llanelli) but there are none on the Sunday. There is a similar pattern on Saturday 7 March. Yet on Saturday 4 April England play Ireland at Twickenham, leaving Wales to play France at Wembley on the Sunday.
Oddly, I have the feeling that Wales may win this match, if Kevin Bowring can pick the right team. For the game with Italy he has picked the correct backs apart from Gareth Thomas on the left wing.
I have nothing against Thomas, except that an injustice has manifestly been done to Nigel Walker. He was Wales' best player against New Zealand at the same stadium, and saved several tries. He is, I am afraid, the victim of prejudice: not colour prejudice - certainly not - but that prejudice which works against players who have come to the game relatively late in life and also happen to be extremely fast.
The wiseacres always say in these circumstances that they are "not sure about his defence" even though his defence is exemplary, as it is with Walker. Both Andrew Harriman of Harlequins and Simon Davies of Swansea were insufficiently recognised by their countries (in Davies' case, he was not recognised at all) on this spurious ground.
Earlier I mentioned the makeshift aspect of the Welsh forwards. There are four forwards in the Allied Dunbar Premier Division who are arguably the superiors of the players Bowring has chosen: John Davies and Craig Quinnell of Richmond, and Nathan Thomas and Richard Webster of Bath, though Thomas is a substitute.
Admittedly Davies and Webster are getting on a bit, even though Webster did sterling work for Bath at Bordeaux. The younger Quinnell is not the most accomplished line-out performer I have ever seen either. But with the other exports that really have been chosen, Barry Williams, Gareth Llewellyn and Scott Quinnell, they would undoubtedly strengthen the pack. The time when the Welsh selectors could afford to turn up their noses at players turning out for English clubs has long passed.
From what I have seen in France, the standard of top English club rugby is higher than anything regularly available there as well. And Clive Woodward has been more level-headed in his selections for Saturday's match than Pierre Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela seem to have been with theirs, despite some silly, unnecessary teases on Woodward's part last week.
Accordingly Jeremy Guscott duly returns, and quite right too. Woodward has kept the pack that held New Zealand, with the enforced substitution of Mark Regan for Richard Cockerill.
The most risky French ploy is to play Thomas Castaignede, now of Castres, at outside half, when what he is naturally is an attacking centre. But, illogically, I still think France will win, and am backing them to take the Championship as well.
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