Rugby Union: Long, hard road towards equality

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The Independent Online
THEY belted out their anthem lustily enough before the kick-off, but after that where exactly were the Welsh supporters last Saturday? In the old days they took over the show, filling the ground with their colour and song, but last week the Welsh went to Twickenham incognito. The arrogance has gone and with it, alas, the pride. The question now is when, or even whether, it will return.

Sport, as we all know, is cyclical. Today's champs can very easily become tomorrow's chumps. This is a fickle fact of life well understood by the Scots and Irish who, between them in the 88-year history of the Five Nations' Championship, have won the Grand Slam on just four occasions. So why the concern now about their failure to challenge the more richly resourced territories of France and England, and why the despondency over the future of the international championship?

The Welsh are, of course, an integral part of that wider question. The steady erosion in self-belief and esteem within Welsh ranks since the halcyon days of the Seventies has inevitably had a baleful effect on the game's popularity in that country. Gates at club matches have been dropping alarmingly, and filling the gigantic new Millennium Stadium to capacity could prove to be a serious problem unless fortunes on the field improve.

On the evidence of Saturday's performance there do not appear to be any short-term solutions. Wales were let down badly by too many of their players. Their scrummage, after a promising start, went to pieces and their line- out was, like their back-row defence, in the "where are they now?" category. There were reports afterwards that Scott Quinnell was carrying an injury from the 10th minute, in which case his failure to come off the field to make way for a fully fit replacement was quite irresponsible. The truth is that Quinnell, who was so devastating in his first season for Wales, appears to have been rumbled and looks increasingly out of place in the high-octane world of international rugby.

In this new age of agents, contracts and profitable endorsements, one wonders at times who is actually selecting the teams. But there can be no doubt that on playing criteria alone, a number of those representing Wales last Saturday should never do so again. If Kevin Bowring is considering tendering his resignation he should think again. The fault was not his, but even if it means failure in the short term he must now take some very difficult and unpopular decisions. So must Scotland. At least they kept going against what is beginning to look like a quite exceptional French team.

The French props, back row and half-backs are in stupendous form and are capable of taking this side to the very top. Olivier Magne cannot surely play at such a level of brilliance throughout the entire championship but he has already won the Man of the Series award in the view of most observers, although Christian Califano is threatening to run him close. They were merciless in targeting the Scots' weaknesses at Murrayfield and ruthless in exposing them.

The Scots were not that bad. They fielded one or two players whose reputations on England's Premiership circuit exceed their claims as international class performers and some others who are manifestly not up to the mark either physically or mentally, but there is not the same depression hanging over Caledonia as is now polluting the atmosphere in Wales and Ireland.

England and France are both on a different level at the moment. France, barring some miracle or an unforeseen calamity depending on which side of the fence you sit, will win the Grand Slam and there seems little likelihood of either Scotland or Ireland in their present statepreventing England from securing the Triple Crown. To that extent little appears to have changed in the Nineties, when France and England have won six championships out of seven. They are setting targets for the others and if the championship is to survive, and survive it must for the good of the game not only in the northern hemisphere but throughout the world, then Scotland, Ireland, Wales and, when they join in, Italy, must close a gap which appears to be widening.

Wales are still in a state of shock but one savaging doesn't have to ruin their winter any more than it should deflect the Scots from their course. They have got a sensible playing structure in place, a sustainable wage policy and some very promising youngsters in the pipeline. Of the Celtic cousins, the Irish appear to have most cause for concern. Brian Ashton's departure has exposed the deep divisions on playing policy and the impenetrable political maze that is and always will be Irish rugby. But in the best Gaelic traditions the hopelessness of their position is not yet serious, although after 80 minutes in the Stade de France on Saturday it could turn out to be seriously hopeless.