Rugby Union: Old guard poised for grandest of slams: Chris Rea on what has the makings of a historic Five Nations' Championship

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The Independent Online
IT IS impossible to establish precisely when the pride of England's players in their own performance exceeded the expectations, so often unrequited, of their supporters. But whenever it was, and we can at least be certain it was some time during Geoff Cooke's term of office as team manager, it was a moment of immense significance.

We have always known that England's seemingly limitless resources and reserves of talent have been the envy of every other rugby-playing nation. Yet for so long the development of the game was arrested by the deep divisions - structural, geographical and philosophical - within its own ranks.

Now, as we stand on the threshold of another Five Nations' Championship series, it is difficult to see beyond the overwhelming presence of England and a third successive Grand Slam. Already this season they have beaten Canada and humbled South Africa, and have done so without playing consistently well.

In Europe at least, England stand erect in their strength. Who is to beat them? Is there any one of England's opponents in the next three months capable of sustaining a level of performance high enough to succeed where all four have failed in the last two years? Roger Uttley, who coached England to the first of their two championship triumphs in 1991, believes that the sternest test will be set when England play Wales in Cardiff. It is a view shared by a number of other luminaries.

I cannot see it myself. England have matchless aerial potential in the line-out, where Wales are manifestly weak; they have a finely blended back row, where Wales seem likely to field three players too similar in style. And England are settled at half-back, where Wales are not. The convulsive ramblings of Colin Stephens against Bridgend may finally have convinced the selectors that the Llanelli fly-half is not the man for a crisis. No international player, even in a weakened side, should have allowed his game to crumble as Stephens' did last week at the Brewery Field.

No, the greatest test of England's strength will be at Twickenham next Saturday against France. The French have produced the most impressive display of the season so far in the second Test against South Africa. Their pack gave a commanding performance that day with the unholy alliance of those volcanic temperaments, Abdel Benazzi and Olivier Roumat, combining in harmonious and athletic partnership in the second row.

There is always the chance that such a volatile pairing will erupt into frenzied indiscipline at Twickenham, but there have been placatory noises coming from the French camp in the last few days and the French coach, Pierre Berbizier, is more concerned about English provocation than he is about French indiscipline. But if their forwards can coalesce as they did against South Africa, then England beware. Already Cooke has started talking up the French team as an additional safeguard against any lingering complacency.

Tactically, England, for whom the scrummage was so important, have had to make more concessions than most to the new laws, which are not, apparently, to the liking of England's coach, Dick Best. But, before the changes, many of the teams coached by Best played a style of rugby very close to the one now being adopted by the more enlightened sides this season.

In any case, the scrummage has not been sufficiently downgraded for England to contemplate going into this game without Jeff Probyn. He could seriously damage the health and fragile ego of one, if not two, of the French front row by drilling through Louis Armary until he reached the fiery Jean-Francois Tordo, France's new hooker and captain.

Berbizier was rather hoping that England would pick Victor Ubogu because the French coach is only too well aware that before France can beat England, they must first conquer their Gallic temperament. In this respect, they may be more comfortable with the Scottish referee Jim Fleming than they were with Stephen Hilditch, of Ireland, although the 'Auld Alliance' will count for nothing with Mr Fleming should France flout the laws at Twickenham with the same contemptuous disdain that they displayed in Paris last season. All that Berbizier asks is for equal standards to apply.

On the reasonable assumption that England continue their organised advance both tactically and technically, the smaller rugby playing communities in Scotland and Ireland will have to face up to the reality that running may no longer be enough just to stand still. There will always be occasions when the underdog has its day, but those days, of which, gloriously, there were several during the 1980s, may be fewer and further between during this decade.

For the opening game against Ireland at Murrayfield, the Scots have selected as a big a pack as they dare in the hope that they can secure enough possession for their talented half-backs to put pressure on the opposition. But with concern over Gavin Hastings' fitness and with four players untried at this level, it may be a dour and unrewarding season for the Scots.

The eternally optimistic Irish have been much comforted by their trial in which the Probables thrashed the Possibles. The conclusions drawn could turn out to be totally misleading. Nevertheless, Gerry Murphy, the new Irish coach, believes that their best chance of victory will be at Murrayfield.

Ireland have also gone for bulk up front and have the additional experience of Steve Smith now happily restored at hooker. Michael Bradley proved to be an astute captain in the trial and his half- back partnership with the new cap Niall Malone was one of the features of the game. The Irish may therefore be more willing than the Scots to bring their backs into play in an attempt to make maximum use of Simon Geoghegan and Richard Wallace on the wings. But whatever the result at Murrayfield, and even allowing for the capacity of both sides to make a nonsense of form, the losers will probably end up with the wooden spoon.

Still in doubt about the outcome of this season's championship? In that case, just consider for a moment how many players from the other competing countries would find a place in the England XV. The Scots would put forward Gavin Hastings, Craig Chalmers and Gary Armstrong while the Welsh would have Scott Gibbs and Robert Jones. Simon Geoghegan would step up as Ireland's champion, and the outstanding player in France at the moment is Philippe Benetton. But would Benetton supplant Peter Winterbottom in his present form? I doubt it. The only serious contenders would be Geoghegan, Armstrong, Jones and Hastings.

Of course, there are niggling doubts about the fitness of Martin Bayfield, the shelf-life of Wade Dooley, Ben Clarke's hands and a more subdued Dewi Morris, but it is my guess that Clarke will be the outstanding newcomer of the tournament, that England will sail to their unique treble, and that Will Carling, with all that rank and fair fortune can bestow, will have timed his voyage as ship's captain to perfection.