Rugby Union: Scotland can take a bow before final curtain

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The Independent Online
WHAT HAS been a fascinating Five Nations' Championship is now within six days of its end. One match will be played in Paris on Saturday, the other at Wembley on Sunday. This will be the first time this season that games have been staggered in this way, though at the beginning it was announced in various handbooks that more international weekends would be Saturday-Sunday affairs, "subject to arrangements".

Quite why the arrangements broke down I do not know. But a Saturday-Sunday rugby weekend is, as far as I am concerned, preferable to an elongated Saturday afternoon, with one match starting at 2.15 (or whenever) and the other two hours or so later to satisfy the demands of the television companies.

When the Five Nations go up to six with the accession of Italy, the competition will consist of 15 matches instead of the present 10. The solution I would have preferred with the existing number of competitor-countries - matches played on consecutive Saturdays with the last match on the last Saturday in April - is clearly going to be even less appealing to the authorities with six nations to accommodate.

Every Saturday between the beginning of January and the end of April would be taken up with an international encounter of some kind. So I foresee even more telescoping, with March and April becoming even more crowded months.

All this, however, is for the future. The most encouraging aspect of the season thus far is not so much that a good deal of enterprising rugby has been played as that it has happened at all. With the amount of bad blood sticking to assorted carpets in Twickenham, Cardiff, Dublin and Edinburgh, it was surprising that there was not a battle between English and Celts resulting in the withdrawal of England from the competition - much as the English clubs petulantly withdrew from the European Cup, though they have now rejoined.

As things have turned out, however, everyone, or almost everyone, has won. And almost everyone must have a prize of some kind. Of the four home countries, three can afford to congratulate themselves.

The team that cannot exercise this indulgence are, alas, Ireland. I have read that we simply over-estimated them. We swallowed the talk about their having the best front five in the competition. In particular, we were over-impressed by Ulster's win in the European Cup. In a way this was foolish. The province had only a handful of representatives in the national side though, arguably, they should have had more, notably the unjustly discarded Simon Mason. In another way, it was sensible, because Ulster, however under-represented they may have been in the national side, undoubtedly increased national morale - on the rugby field, at any rate, if nowhere else. Despite the subsequent win over Wales, Ireland's season really went when David Humphreys missed the penalty which followed Thomas Castaignede's successful effort only seconds before.

France did not deserve to win this match but they deserved to draw with Wales. They would have won if Castaignede had not, so to speak, done a Humphreys in the closing seconds. They have been the other disappointment of the season, lucky and lackadaisical against Ireland, demoralised against England, inspired only against Wales.

Even though they may win against Scotland in Paris on Saturday, the Scots are undoubtedly the team of the season. They were 50-1 at the start. Now - if they beat France, and Wales beat England the next day - they are possible winners of the championship over England on points difference. After Scotland, the second team who can congratulate themselves are Wales. And the third are England.

Paul Ackford, the former England international, wrote the other day, in what we old journalists have been brought up to call another newspaper, that he would not mind in the least if England won by eight penalties from Jonny Wilkinson to three converted tries - or, presumably, by two penalties to one unconverted try.

On this occasion, however, Wales will have their own Wilkinson in the form of Neil Jenkins. If he, rather than an erratic Kenny Logan, had been doing the kicking for Scotland at Twickenham they would have beaten England, too.

I am not putting money on my native land at Wembley but - not being in the press seats this time, where encouragement is properly prohibited - I shall be cheering them on.

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