Rugby Union: Signposts to greater glory

A decent Five Nations campaign can forge World Cup contenders.
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The Independent Online
WHEN IT comes to World Cup indicators, the Five Nations' Championship is hardly the stuff of a bookmaker's dreams; after all, none of the sides most likely to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy in Cardiff on 6 November are involved in the tournament. Nevertheless, recent history proves that a decent run in rugby's oldest and most outrageously hyped competition can act as a launchpad of sorts.

In 1987, when the inaugural World Cup was fought out in the jet-lag territories of Australia and New Zealand, France unexpectedly beat the Wallabies to a place in the final off the back of a first Grand Slam in six years. Daniel Dubroca's side did not rip through Europe with anything like the panache shown by the 1998 Tricolores under Raphael Ibanez, another hooker from the deep-south heartland of French rugby; indeed, their seven-point victory over the Welsh in Paris was the most handsome of their winning margins. But the experience served to weld together their notoriously disparate parts, for 13 of the team who won at Twickenham featured in the Eden Park climax with the All Blacks four months later.

England experienced something very similar in 1991. Having sewn up their first Slam in more than a decade by out-muscling the French on an extraordinary day at Twickenham, they promptly rode the Yellow Brick Road all the way to a World Cup final against the Australians that same autumn.

Once more, the bulk of the work was performed by the same players: 12 of those who saw off Serge Blanco and company in front of a delirious band of middle Englanders in March would go on to do battle with the Wallabies in November.

There was another England Grand Slam before the last World Cup in South Africa four years ago, although a big bloke by the name of Lomu ensured they would not reach the final in Johannesburg. If Lawrence Dallaglio's men fulfil the bookies' expectations and do the business in this season's tournament, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Lomu will devastate them once again when New Zealand visit Twickenham in a pool match of supreme importance in the second week in October.

But that collision is still eight months distant. The Calcutta Cup match with Scotland is only 16 days away.