Rugby Union: Red rose looks ready to bloom

Five Nations countdown: England are marginal favourites but their unpopularity in Celtic lands will hinder them
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IT WAS a close run thing, thanks to the accursed double gin brigade in their club ties and blazers, but the usual suspects are safely under starter's orders for one last pre-millennial gallop around the Five Nations circuit before Italy throw their hat in the ring to launch a new tournament for a new century.

England go into this season's jamboree as marginal favourites, purely because they play the French at home rather than in Paris, but the prurient politics of the last few weeks have done them no favours; given that they are now about as popular among the Celts as Bernard Manning would have been at Greenham Common, the red roses will not survive the next couple of humdinging months without losing a petal or two.

When Jim Telfer, the Scotland coach, described this 78th and final Five Nations as "a more open contest than in recent years, when it has been something of a two-horse race", he hit the nail squarely on the head. Rather too squarely for comfort, perhaps. This one could just develop into a four-horse race: that is to say, a breathless tussle for European supremacy involving everyone except the Scots, whose shirts should carry the words "rank outsider" rather than a sponsor's logo. Maybe there is a company called Rank Outsider with some marketing money going spare. If so, its managing director should contact Murrayfield for a marriage made in heaven.

Had Telfer been able to pick and mix from a full squad in advance of this weekend's opening skirmish with a confident Welsh outfit in Edinburgh, the chances of a first five-way split since 1973 - and only the second in the history of the tournament - might have been less infinitesimal.

Frustratingly, he has been denied that privilege. Shorn of his bulkiest prop, his hardest flanker and his most exciting new threequarter, Old Granite Features once again finds himself up the Tweed without a claymore for a paddle. The Scots are 50-1 for this year's title. Defeat on Saturday, a distinct possibility, will attach a second unwanted zero to those odds.

By contrast, the remaining quartet appear bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and bristling with aggressive intent. None more so, indeed, than the Irish, who are racing towards this weekend's frenzied tilt at the Grand Slammers of France in the red-handed slipstream of Ulster, the new European champions.

There is not much wrong with a pack capable of replacing Malcolm O'Kelly, the form lock of 1999, with Jeremy Davidson, the form lock of 1997; in Keith Wood, Paul Wallace, Andy Ward and a rejuvenated Eric Miller they possess four other forwards perfectly capable of mixing it with the best and living to give full rein to the blarney.

You might paint a similarly optimistic picture for the Welsh, whose own version of the Messiah, Graham Henry, arrived to change the world before Christmas rather than during it. The New Zealander is as sharp as the studs on an Aucklander's boots and as shrewd as you like; he takes no long-odds liberties with his selection, he tells his charges precisely what to do in every imaginable situation and, most importantly of all, he makes them believe. Before Henry, the Red Dragon was a walking inferiority complex that spent rather more time on the psychiatrist's couch than on the training paddock. Six months on, it has got itself a life.

For all that, the red and green Celtic renaissance remains fragile. A single rough afternoon against either of the tournament grown-ups could send rugby's arch romantics straight back to the padded cell with their phobias running riot. And it could very easily happen, even though the Irish have both France and England on their own mudheap and Wales feel increasingly comfortable in their home from home at Wembley. The former have a pack, but no threequarter line worthy of celebration; the latter can boast a lethal back division, but no tight five to load the bullets. One close shave against the Springboks and victory in a devalued European Cup do not add up to a spring, let alone a summer.

Heaven knows, it is high time the Five Nations regained the initiative from the Two Nations. England have won eight on the trot against Scotland, nine of the last 11 against Ireland and eight of the last 10 against Wales, while the French have won 24 of their last 30 championship games against the twilit Celts. Such predictability leaves even this wonderfully social, feel-good tournament teetering on the brink of unsustainability; the Scots, unable to pull in a quorum for the reigning world champions last November, would not fill Murrayfield this weekend either, were it not for the traditional ale-propelled migration from the valleys of Wales. How strange that the loudest voices on an organising committee that temporarily decided it could do without England should come from the weakest link in the Five Nations chain.

In short, the northern hemisphere game badly needs the Celts to start playing their rugby with the same degree of enthusiasm they bring to their politics. The World Cup, just eight hectic months away, will be a major yawn if the big five - South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, France and England - put 50 points plus on everyone else. To succeed in an increasingly congested sporting landscape requires contenders and crowds. What it does not remotely require is a half-empty Murrayfield or a third-full Lansdowne Road. That, sadly, is what it will get if the Scots and Irish, in particular, do not front up on the field.

And there is no better time than now to begin the fronting-up process; wall-to-wall television (even allowing for the satellite blight on the big Twickenham occasions) and pounds 12m of Lloyds TSB money should set the underdogs tearing away from the traps. The rugby world has always tuned en masse into the Five Nations, but those in the real world south of the equator have spent the last few years viewing it as a comedy rather than a drama. It is down to the Celts to stop the laughter.



Ireland v France Dublin

Scotland v Wales Murrayfield


England v Scotland Twickenham

Wales v Ireland Wembley


Ireland v England Dublin

France v Wales Paris


England v France Twickenham

Scotland v Ireland Murrayfield


France v Scotland Paris


Wales v England Wembley