Rugby Union: Only Bateman, Dallaglio and Johnson would get into the French side

ALAN WATKINS ON RUGBY
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The Independent Online
THIS has been a very peculiar Five Nations' Championship, from which all kinds of disparate and sometimes contradictory morals can be drawn.

The best team won. England deserved to be second to France. Wales and Scotland could exchange positions without the commission of any injustice. Most of all, Ireland could, with a bit of luck, have won three, possibly all four of their matches, and ended up with six, seven or even eight points instead of nothing at all.

One moral of the season is that standard forward power does not matter nearly so much as has popularly been supposed. With Martin Johnson brought in to support Malcolm O'Kelly (along with Andy Ward, the find of the season), and Lawrence Dallaglio at No 6, the present Irish pack could plausibly be transformed into the British Lions eight. And how much good did that do Ireland?

Overall the Welsh forwards were not so impressive. I regret the continuing omission of the Quinnell brothers. Nevertheless at Wembley on Sunday the front five, hitherto considered the weakest element in the team, did everything that was asked of them and a bit more.

In one of the early scrums they even took a strike against the head, now as rare as snowdrops in Sicily. France retaliated with the same feat later on.

Andy Moore and Mike Voyle did well in the lineout. The back row did not perform quite so heroically, though Colin Charvis was unlucky to receive a yellow card for retaliating against an unpunished French aggressor; while Stuart Davies, who is almost as old as I am, was even unluckier to get the same treatment for acting in the biblically approved role of peacemaker.

Certainly the odd Australian referee, Peter Marshall, did not bless him. He also gave some curious decisions throughout the match, the more so after he had been in conclave with his fellow-countryman on the touchline, Wayne Erickson. There used to be a case for interventionist touch-judges. But the present state of affairs, where there are in practice two or even three referees, is in danger of getting out of hand.

No amount of more sympathetic refereeing would have made any difference on Sunday. The presence of Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs or, preferably, both might have made a difference. With his great speed and his supernatural powers of anticipation, Bateman might have scored at least one of the three tries that were there for the taking. Gibbs might have done the same and, additionally, dented the confidence of Stephane Glas and Christophe Lamaison.

But singly or together they would not have made a great deal of difference. France's crucial breaks came nearer to the forwards, with the back row, with Philippe Carbonneau or, above all, with Thomas Castaignede, referred to by Bill McLaren (whom the good Lord preserves) as "the Toulouse diamond", even though he has been playing for Castres for several seasons now.

How many British Isles players could claim a place in the current French XV? Or how would a British Isles XV fare against the French? I have been amusing myself by selecting such a side, evaluated on performance in this season's Five Nations alone. This excludes injured players such as Jeremy Davidson and Tom Smith, and (maybe unjustly) discarded players such as John Bentley and Scott Quinnell:

M Perry; D Rees, A Bateman, W Greenwood, D Hickie; P Grayson, R Howley; R Corrigan, K Wood, P Wallace, M Johnson, M O'Kelly, L Dallaglio, V Costello, N Back.

Obviously a lot of people would argue with this choice. They might object to the omission of Jeremy Guscott, of Gibbs or of both; want Kyran Bracken or Matt Dawson in instead of Rob Howley; consider Victor Costello to be too crude an operative; and say generally I had been altogether too indulgent to Ireland, who have six representatives against England's seven, Wales's two and Scotland's none at all.

But how many of these would get into the French side? I can think of only three: Bateman, Dallaglio and Johnson.

At any rate I am fairly happy. At the beginning of the competition I invested (as the bookmakers like to express the matter for all the world as if you were putting your money into the Abbey National) pounds 100 in France to win at the in retrospect highly favourable odds of 13-8.

I now look forward to a small profit. No one can say that France do not deserve their win either.

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