Rugby Union: Seeking Lions' share of success

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: This weekend kicks off a crucial tournament . Chris Hewett assesses the prospects and the players

Irrelevant, inhibited, insular and in dire need of a fundamental shake-up? Over-hyped, over-valued and, regrettably, over here? Yes, the Five Nations' Championship is with us again, bringing with it the now traditional hotch-potch of rugby emotions - the delicious tingle of anticipation and unrivalled sense of occasion, undermined so often by the absence of real quality and the knowledge that south of the Equator, the All Blacks and Springboks are more likely to be shaking with laughter than trembling with fear.

It is the height of fashion these days to give the Five Nations short shrift and it is difficult to argue with the jeremiahs who point to the fact that England won last year's title by scoring fewer tries - three in four games - than any of their rivals, having fallen back on a prehistoric game plan rendered obsolete by the Super-12 and Tri-Nations Tournaments that followed Down Under.

Yet this season's showpiece could hardly be more significant or carry with it more responsibility; the first fully professional Lions party in history leaves for South Africa in mid-May and in the absence of more than a handful of stone-cold certainties the selectors will base their decisions on the events of the next 10 weeks. Fran Cotton, the tour manager, has stated that contenders who fail to win a Five Nations place will come under consideration regardless, so it follows that while some first-choice internationals will play themselves on to the trip during this tournament, others will play themselves off it.

According to Finlay Calder, whose triumph in Australia in 1989 made him the first and only successful Lions captain since 1974, this year's Five Nations is central to the success of this summer's series. "The Lions have an enormous task in front of them; above all else, they must gain the respect of the South Africans. A really bad tour would do inestimable damage to the Lions as an institution. If things go wrong in selection, the consequences will be too terrible to contemplate.

"Ideally, the selectors should already have a framework in place - you can't tell me players like Martin Johnson and Gregor Townsend haven't been pencilled in - and if it were me, I'd have nominated my captain and insisted he play a full role in constructing the squad. But the important thing is to pick form players and you can only do that off the back of the Five Nations."

The former Scottish captain also believes that a successful Lions tour would give the British game a much-needed injection of confidence and self-esteem in the run-up to the 1999 World Cup. "When we beat Australia eight years ago, both the Scots and the English reaped a huge benefit in terms of national performance. Strong, successful teams came out of that trip and for a while at least our inferiority complex in relation to the southern hemisphere powers disappeared. That could happen this time, too."

In sharp contrast to his colourful image as the original claymore-wielding Scottish rugby warrior, Calder is unexpectedly complimentary about England, the obvious title favourites. "From a Lions perspective, we need to take the very best available squad to South Africa and that quite clearly calls for an enormous contribution from the English. There will be no room for compromise, for diplomatic trade-offs in selection; the English are light years ahead of any other home union in the quality of their club rugby and that should be reflected when the party is announced - provided, of course, they are up to speed in the Five Nations."

Whatever its stature on the world stage - "quite frankly, I can't imagine that Wales versus Ireland will persuade thousands of people in Manawatu or Wairarapa Bush to forgo a night's sleep," Calder said - the extraordinary public and commercial appeal of the Five Nations gives it an almost impregnable foothold in the national sporting psyche.

All 10 matches have been sold out for months and that cast-iron popularity is the driving force behind the pounds 277m BSkyB broadcasting deal currently waiting to be signed.

All we need now is for the cream to rise. For Townsend to set the Championship alight as Scotland's outside-half and for his countryman, Rob Wainwright, to confirm his recovery from injury; for the two Scotts, Gibbs and Quinnell, to make themselves first-choice Lions by inspiring the long-awaited Welsh renaissance; for Brian Ashton to make some sense of a chaotic Irish back division and perhaps bring the best out of the great under-achiever, Jonathan Bell; and for England to start using a front five of world-class potential as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

It is asking a lot. But if the prospect of a Lions adventure is not sufficient stimulus, we really are in trouble.

ENGLAND

Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, but the remaining 10 per cent and how to obtain it remains a source of bafflement to Jack Rowell and his not-so-merry men. Flawed selection at loose-forward and half-back in the pre-Christmas programme created a sow's ear from the silk purse sewn by Jason Leonard's outstanding tight unit and unless the issues are addressed, England will remain vulnerable to any side capable of winning line-out ball. For all that, the clout of heavy-duty forwards like Martin Johnson and Simon Shaw ought to pave the way for a Triple Crown at least, even though trips to Dublin and Cardiff are on the itinerary.

Prospects: Firm favourites.

SCOTLAND

They were not supposed to be much good last year, but their unexpected Grand Slam charge was halted only by a characteristically Neanderthal display from Dean Richards. The Scots were disappointingly conciliatory when the Wallabies visited Murrayfield in November, but the return to fitness of Rob Wainwright should do wonders. They possess an uncut diamond in Gregor Townsend and very decent scrum-halves in Gary Armstrong and Bryan Redpath, but unless someone lights a fire in the bellies of the lightweights up front, neither England nor France will lose sleep at the prospect of facing them on home turf. Hang on, though, weren't we all saying the same things 12 months ago?

Prospects: Mid-table at worst.

FRANCE

Gloriously, infuriatingly unpredictable. It is a decade since the French won at Twickenham and the indications point to a continuation - Jean-Claude Skrela's side has been affected by injury and the coach has not helped with some off-the-wall selection. Yet one flash of genius from Alain Penaud, Thomas Castaignede or Stephane Glas in midfield could turn the shooting match on its head; on their day, the French backs are untouchable. They will be as formidable as ever up front - they have two World XV contenders in Christian Califano and Abdelatif Benazzi - and if their chosen scrum-half plays anything like, they will take some stopping.

Prospects: The main threat to England.

IRELAND

Heaven only knows. Any side capable of pushing Australia right to the wire one day and losing pathetically to Italy the next, is beyond the call of reason and it will be no surprise if Brian Ashton, the new coaching adviser, expands the selection panel by one to include Russell Grant. The recall of two seasoned half-backs, Eric Elwood and Niall Hogan, for this weekend's opener against the French suggests the Irish are willing to fight for their reputation, for neither man is a shrinking violet. However, apart from Keith Wood, the all-action hooker who captains the team, Ireland are woefully short of genuine Test talent.

Prospects: Dire.

WALES

In a sense, it's now or never for the Welsh. For years, they have used the exodus of talent to rugby league as an excuse for their failings at international level. Now that Quinnell, Gibbs, Bateman, Young and Davies are back, the moment has arrived to put up or shut up. False dawns come as second nature to those with the Red Dragon at heart, but this championship gives them real cause for optimism. Robert Howley's talents at scrum-half should bring out the best in a back-row more physical than any seen at the Arms Park in a decade and if Arwel Thomas errs on the right side of sanity at stand-off, things are sure to happen out wide.

Prospects: Dark horses.

Fixtures

January 18: Scotland v Wales

Ireland v France

February 1: England v Scotland

Wales v Ireland

February 15: Ireland v England

France v Wales

March 1: England v France

Scotland v Ireland

March 15: Wales v England

France v Scotland

Championship winners

Outright Shared

Wales 22 11

England 22 9

Scotland 13 8

Ireland 10 9

France 10 7

Grand Slams

England - 11 (1913, 1914, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1928, 1957, 1980, 1991, 1992, 1995)

Wales - 8 (1908, 1909, 1911, 1950, 1952, 1971, 1976, 1978)

France - 4 (1968, 1977, 1981, 1987)

Scotland - 3 (1925, 1984, 1990)

Ireland - 1 (1948)

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