Rugby Union: Prime time for Lam, lean for slaughter

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The Independent Online
THERE's so much good rugby in prospect, I'm sure that the rugby authorities can't screw up this year as thoroughly as they did 1998. With any luck, they'll struggle to get room in the headlines as the build- up to the World Cup starts to gather momentum.

People seem to be looking forward to the Five Nations far more than they have in recent years, which is partly due to the legacy of the South Africans' tour. They left behind a bit of hope for the Celtic nations and, all of a sudden, no one is fearing the 50- or 60-point beatings that were handed out last season.

And, although only the Irish are still carrying the flag in the European competitions, there is going to be plenty of interest in the Allied Dunbar Premiership where we all have representatives. It must be the most open title race for some time in England. They all seem to be capable of beating each other and we are seeing unpredictable results such as Saracens losing at home to London Scottish as they did last week.

Although Leicester always seem to manage to be in the final flurry at the top, I have a sneaking feeling that Northampton can come through to win it. They have matured a great deal this season and their coach Ian McGeechan has tightened up their game in the vital areas. They also have the services of my choice for player of the year, Pat Lam.

Last season he helped Newcastle reach the top spot and now he can do the same for Northampton. He is not only extremely physical but also a tremendous all-round footballer. He is very quick and alert and, whether it needs to be tight and tough or open and fast, he can adapt to the exact requirements of a team at any time. He is already casting a shadow over the World Cup as far as I am concerned because he will be playing for Western Samoa against Wales in the group matches.

In Wales, Llanelli look capable of taking the championship. They need to steady their scrum but with Scott Quinnell back they could just edge it ahead of Pontypridd. With the luck of the draw, the big crunches could come in the Swalec Cup. The rebels Cardiff and Swansea are the teams everyone wants to match themselves against and I hope they are kept apart until the last. If the rebels play against Llanelli and Pontypridd in the semi- finals we will see the sort of battles Welsh club rugby has been missing this season.

When it comes to the Five Nations, I trust I'm right in predicting that the massacres of last year will be avoided. Every team seems to be sorting themselves out in readiness for the World Cup and will have been heartened by their experiences against the Springboks. Now the Celtic nations have to match themselves against France and England and although the games are going to be closer they are going to be tough.

I favour England to win the championship because they are likely to put their full reliance on their forward strength, which is formidable at the moment. If Clive Woodward can organise the pace of Matt Perry and the centres Jeremy Guscott and Will Greenwood to take advantage of the power up front, England will be hard for anyone to cope with.

England will have the further advantage of having to play only one away match; against Ireland in Dublin. Playing France at Twickenham is a plus for them, as is having to travel only to Wembley to play Wales. The Welsh have performed well in their exile but the old Arms Park did seem to give them an edge, particularly against England. Still, the Welsh will be capable of springing surprises this year.

Whether England's ability to beat anyone on their day can be carried through to the final stages of the World Cup is a question that will hang in the air for the next 10 months. At the moment, I still fancy that one of the big three will take away the cup and it will take the Tri-Nations tournament at the end of the summer to give us a more reliable guide as to which one it will be. If I had to make my choice now, it would be Australia, but there is much still to happen that will have a strong bearing on the final outcome.

Rugby league may be slightly overshadowed by the big events in union but I shall be following that code just as enthusiastically. Sheffield's winning of the Challenge Cup was the performance of last year and perhaps Wigan will not have it all their own way this year, either. They will be the dominating force but there are a couple who will challenge them. St Helens, under Ellery Hanley, are going to be worth watching but I reckon Leeds could well build on last year's promise.

But, whatever happens this year, I carry into it the memory of a friend whose sudden death last week at the age of 33 was devastating to his family and the game. Roy Powell was truly a gentle giant. As hard as they come but unassuming and quietly-spoken, Roy really did grace every pitch he walked on to. I played against him at club level and with him for Great Britain. You knew all about it if he tackled you but if he happened to hit you high he would apologise, which is not a common occurrence in either code.

I had not been in rugby league for long when I went on a Great Britain tour to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. One night, Roy saw me struggling to do my ironing.

He came up, took the iron and finished it for me. I'm used to forwards who flatten you, not your clothes, but that's the sort of man that he was. He was still playing, getting ready for a new season for Rochdale Hornets, when he died. Lots of people think they are important in this game but Roy Powell really was what rugby is all about.