Rugby Union: Scotland upset the odds

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The Independent Online
WHAT I feel most pleased about so far this season is my recommendation to back Scotland at 8-1 for the Five Nations' Championship. To be accurate: I did not go so far as to predict that they would actually win or even share the championship, but that at those odds they were the best bet. England at 4-11, were, I concluded, excessively over-priced.

England could still end up with a respectable six points if they beat Scotland and Ireland. But if they lost these matches, and Ireland additionally managed to defeat Wales at Cardiff (no longer out of the question, to judge from the respective performances last Saturday), they would end up at the bottom of the table. And where would Geoff Cooke's and Dick Best's pencilled-in Lions selections be then, I should like to know? The answer is that they would remain more or less intact.

The point is that we are perhaps insufficiently grateful for the Five Nations, which, spread over three months is now the finest annual sporting contest in the world.

The power of television ensures more converts to rugby union every year, even though most of them will never stray far from their armchairs. Whatever the technical arguments against the new laws advanced by Best and others, they have made the game more exciting to watch and more demanding to play.

The season has already seen two great games, England-France and Wales-England, though there might be some purists who would deny that adjective to the first encounter. But they were certainly magnificently exciting, not least because the better sides lost. By all accounts (for I was not in Paris), the same could be said of France v Scotland.

What has happened so far is that Scotland and France have arisen to challenge the supremacy of England. Both countries had been troubled: Scotland by the retirement of leading players all at once, France by an eruption of politics which periodically engulfs the national side.

France ended up by restoring their best players, in default of anything else to do. With Scotland, the recovery of fitness and form by their more experienced performers, notably Gavin Hastings, Gary Armstrong and Kenny Milne, coincided with the happy arrival of previously unknown individuals such as Derek Stark and Andy Reed - and with the consolidation of the position of Doddie Weir.

When Wade Dooley perforated Weir's eardrum at Murrayfield last year, the public indignation was caused not so much by the nature of the act as by the apparent vulnerability of the victim. It was as if a very big man had hit a very small boy. Today, Weir is a virtual certainty to tour with the Lions; while Reed, who cannot be sure of his position in the Bath side, must be well in the running as well.

There is another attractive aspect to the season. It has not exactly overturned but certainly modified our opinions on the best 15 or 30 players in these islands. Thus Gareth Llewellyn, like Weir and Reed, has literally risen unexpectedly. Sadly, however, Emyr Lewis is still not quite the force he was.

At Cardiff, Wales flattered to deceive. Though Alan Davies is admirably loyal to his players, as they are to him, some changes are surely necessary. Tony Clement is too good a footballer to be omitted from the Welsh side, whether as full-back, centre or outside-half. If he is not chosen in the last position, there remains a strong case for Aled Williams.

I am sorry to go on about this player, whom I have sometimes seen but never met in my life. But week in and week out, according to the reports, he gives the best all-round performance in his position in Wales. He deserves a proper chance. In any event, it seems that there will be no Welsh outside-half travelling with the Lions. Craig Chalmers has virtually booked his place and will presumably be accompanied and challenged by the admittedly Welsh-qualified Stuart Barnes.

More than ever today, the four national Lions selectors are liable to be overridden by the manager and coach. My worry is not so much that Cooke will prefer English players as that - a slightly different matter - he will be over-influenced by recent English selections. There remains a strong case for taking the unjustly discarded Ian Hunter; while Cooke's absurd heightism over Neil Back should quite simply be overruled.