Rugby Union: State of the nations:

Mark Evans, the Saracens director of coaching, provides an expert analysis
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The Independent Online

'S campaign will stand or fall by the result in Paris on Saturday. With the memories of that draw against New Zealand still fresh in the collective mind of the nation's rugby followers, the expectation level is ludicrously high. With a rejuvenated Paul Grayson at fly-half the middle five in a relatively inexperienced side look very strong. They will attempt to play the game at pace and the eventual return of Jeremy Guscott will help enormously. Weaknesses include the scrummaging (which only the French may be able to expose), the inconsistency of the throwing into the line-out and the lack of real class in the back three. Victory at the Stade de France would be a real achievement but the rest of the programme does not look challenging enough. England will be judged on their performance as much as their results, which is never an easy situation to be in.

One to watch: Garath Archer (lock). Oustanding autumn; a good Championship would confirm him as a future Lion.


FRANCE'S perennial problems: too many players of similar quality to choose from, grumblings about the administration and coaching set-up, show no signs of abating. They have the best front-row in the tournament and lashings of pace out wide, whilst in Thomas Castaignede they possess the most naturally gifted rugby footballer in Europe. But their back-five selection in the pack looks poor, their confidence after the South African debacle is in tatters and the captaincy (often a poisoned chalice) has been handed to Raphael Ibanez, virtually unknown outside south-west France. If Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux can communicate a clear game-plan to the team they should collect another Grand Slam - but there is a great deal of confusion in French rugby at the moment, and the trip to Wembley in April to face Wales looks a tricky one.

One to watch: Franck Tournaire (prop). Recently left Narbonne for Toulouse, the tight-head could be the tournament's dominant scrummager.


HOWEVER much "inter-active rugby" is in vogue, the Irish would be well advised to give it a wide berth - particularly when they go behind and have to play catch-up rugby. Although they have a hard core of quality forwards, the likes of Keith Wood, Paul Wallace and Paddy Johns, the depth is simply not there. They lack an open-side flanker of any quality whilst the mediocre form of Eric Miller must be a concern. The midfield backs are barely competent whilst scrum-half remains a real problem. Brian Ashton must ensure he does not have a game-plan which is beyond the ability of the players - once the game against the All Blacks opened up Ireland looked lost. Keep it tight, ferocious and driving in the best of Irish traditions and they have a chance of two wins out of four, which would represent a very successful season.

One to watch: Malcolm O'Kelly (lock). Jeremy Davidson's loss may not be felt so keenly if the quick, athletic London Irishman continues his recent improvement.


OH DEAR, oh dear! The situation north of the border looks very difficult indeed. Echoes of the early 1950s (when Scotland lost 17 games in a row) are beginning to be heard and there seems little ground for optimism. After the disastrous performance in defeat against Italy the coach Richie Dixon has resigned, but the playing squad remains intact. Alternatives to the present incumbents do not spring easily to mind, but too many of them are simply not of international class. They rely almost exclusively on Gregor Townsend, who is not enjoying the best of seasons with his club, Northampton. But they also need to recapture their former passion, commitment and organisation, hallmarks of the glory days, if they are to have any chance of avoiding a whitewash. A win in Dublin first up on Saturday is absolutely vital. If Ian McGeechan is offered the coaching post he may well decide that the climate in Northampton is far too pleasant to leave.

One to watch: If only.


THE strongest of the Celtic nations, Wales nevertheless have a terribly unbalanced side. Their back line - with the notable exception of full- back where Neil Jenkins is out of position - has class throughout. The combination of Scott Gibbs and Allan Bateman in the centre should be absolutely outstanding. Alongside them much will depend on the mercurial talents of Arwel Thomas. If he can control the game tactically as well as sparking on an individual basis then Wales will be delighted. Robert Howley remains an outstanding half-back. Unfortunately the pack looks woefully inadequate, with a lack of balance in the back row and not enough firepower - even with the return of Scott Quinnell. Expect them to be too strong for the Irish and the Scots, but the trip to Twickenham could turn out to be another day of national mourning.

One to watch: Martyn Williams (openside flanker). The Pontypridd breakaway may well bridge gap between outstanding club form and international stage.