RUGBY UNION: Tasty hors d'oeuvres before main course

Sport-by-sport guide to 1995: England awaits the European football inva sion as rugby union's World Cup takes over
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The Independent Online
People have been saying for years, ever since the World Cup's inception in fact, that our dear old Five Nations' Championship is no more than a prelude to the main event. In 1995, this will be the literal truth.

For scarcely will the championship have finished than the five nations, as well as the other nine, will have only South Africa on their minds. In fact you could argue, what with training camps in Besancon for France and Lanzarote for England, that it wa s already there.

If some see this as a devaluation of the Five Nations, others among us would beg to differ. Imperfect as it may be, scornful about it though southern-hemisphere rugby folk can be when not being plain jealous, it has an identity all of its own and even inits newish role as World Cup warm-up is perfect.

And never mind South Africa, the championship that will begin to unfold with England in Ireland and Wales in France on 21 January is prospectively the most thrilling in years, not only - thank heaven - because of France and England, but also because of the rising stock of the Welsh and Irish.

Having said all that, it would be churlish to deny that World Cup '95 - just like World Cups '91 and '87 - will make this an exceptional rugby year. And afterwards, just as we all said in '91 and '87, rugby union will never be the same again.

This is simply the most obvious comment one can make about it; the outcome of the tournament itself is, by contrast, gloriously unpredictable. We have it on the authority of Louis Luyt, no less, that the quaint notion of amateurism that still pervades rugby's corridors of power - though not the corridors outside the dressing-rooms - will become passe as soon as the last pass is given.

The president of the South African Rugby Football Union is bending with the prevailing wind, though in a sense he is also blowing it. He promises the South African World Cup - his World Cup - will be the most successful ever, and he means this in a commercial as well as playing sense.

This is the crux, whether players will any longer be willing to stand idly by - metaphorically of course, since in reality they are the ones at the heart of the action - while millions are being made on their backs.

In 1995, the answer is no, not when there is a televisual audience to be found in no fewer than 104 countries, not when a million and a half spectators will be present at the 32 matches stretching from the opener between South Africa and Australia at Newlands on 25 May to the final at Ellis Park 30 days later.

Springboks v Wallabies is a rugby event of incalculable consequence and it would be pleasant for those of us who pine for old attitudes and aspirations, while sadly acknowledging that we have irrevocably been overtaken by events, if at the World Cup we could for once concentrate on the actual playing of the game.

We should be so lucky, but at least the fact remains that the general quality of the teams who will be present - whether by virtue of being quarter-finalists last time, or as hosts, or as qualifiers from the great, global competition that commenced more than two years ago - will be higher by far than at either of the previous two World Cups.

So here's to Ivory Coast and to Tonga, who were not among us in '91, and at the other end of the scale here's to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, England and France, from whom is likely to come the eventual winner.

If they all play half as good a game as they talk, World Cup '95 will be an unparalleled rugby extravanganza which those of us fortunate enough to be present will never forget.