Rugby Union: Nations fall into a class divide: Chris Rea believes that the discrepancy in playing standards threatens the future of rugby's showpiece championship

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The Independent Online
AFTER weeks of vigorous and, at times, acrimonious debate, the television committee of the four home unions are close to agreement on the share-out of the spoils from whichever company wins the rights to screen domestic rugby for the next three years. The intensity of the discussions and the divisions between England on the one side and Scotland, Ireland and Wales on the other have been such that the very future of the Five Nations' Championship was threatened.

Mercifully, common sense appears to have prevailed and an accommodation from which both sides can emerge with honour is likely to be reached. But if the disparity between rich and poor off the field were to find an echo in playing standards on it, then the Five Nations' Championship would indeed be at risk.

The World Cup has taken the game so far beyond the clubhouse walls of Europe that countries can no longer afford to shelter in the cosy parochialism of the past. Already England have been making expansionist noises, suggesting that they play a minimum of two internationals against major touring sides, and if ever the day comes when the Five Nations tournament ceases to meet the rigorous challenges and demands of the world game, then the domestic international series will go to the wall just as it did in football.

Arguments have been advanced that the championship should be extended to embrace countries like Italy, Romania and Spain, patronisingly called emerging nations. But even if they could be accommodated in a congested season, these countries are nowhere near the standard required to play a meaningful part in such a competitive structure. And for the sake of the championship's future, Scotland, Ireland and Wales must ensure that they do not join them as submerging nations.

Unfortunately there was scant evidence from last Saturday's matches in Cardiff and Paris to support the view that this year's championship will be anything other than a two-man line-out with England and France reaching for the prizes and Scotland failing to get off the ground. Despite the Welsh being so exultantly lifted from their melancholy of recent seasons, the Cardiff game was not so much a reveille for Wales as the Last Post for Scotland.

There was much to applaud in the Welsh performance, and in Scott Quinnell they have one of the most promising young British forwards for a decade, but their scrummage, which in seasons past has been scattered to the four winds, has not suddenly become an irresistible force. Nor is it likely that Neil Jenkins, for whom the conditions were ideally suited and who played the game of his very chequered rugby life, has been transformed overnight into a world-class fly-half.

Phil Davies is another who has been around for a long time. He has always been a player you would want with you in the jungle but last Saturday he was fortunate that Patrick Robin, the French referee who had a generally poor game, chose not to get to grips with the line-out.

A more accurate assessment of Welsh form will come in a fortnight's time at Lansdowne Road, although the Irish side, picked principally to limit the damage in Paris, failed even to do that. The French backs exposed Ireland's cumbersome and miscast loose forwards, proving once again the futility of employing a tank to chase a bullet. Assuming that the Irish learn from that mistake and that they find some spark (Brendan Mullin perhaps?) to ignite the dampest midfield in the championship, then there is still the Triple Crown as a dim and very distant prospect.

Ireland's line-out still succeeded in pinpointing what remains the most vulnerable part of the French game. But the Irish had a tendency to fluctuate, according to the whims of the infuriatingly enigmatic Neil Francis - tight and organised when he was in the mood, loose and shambolic when he was not. Judging by the relish with which the Welsh went about their nefarious business in the line-out against Scotland, the Irish will need their elbows as well as their wits about them.

So abject and total was the Scottish surrender that they even came second in the unseemly brawl which so disfigured the early stages of the game and which, despite Garin Jenkins's outrageous behaviour, the Scots themselves started. And this was a side picked in the expectation that it would at least stand up to enemy fire.

As proud Edward's Army prepares for another assault on the nation's shattered pride, the Scots do appear to have selected a more sensibly balanced pack. They have also left the door open for the prodigal's return. But if I were a selector the question I would ask is not whether Gary Armstrong is fit to play but whether he wants to play. Only when I was convinced on that point would I pick the one man in Scottish rugby who is perhaps capable of lifting a moderately talented side to the peaks of achievement required to beat England.

(Photograph omitted)

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