Rugby Union: Team-by-team guide to the Five Nations Championships

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND

Clive Wooodward has a pack - by God, he has a pack - but Will Greenwood's likely absence from the crucial inside centre slot is the equivalent of a poke in the eye with a pitchfork, especially as Phil de Glanville is also laid up with injury. The coach has a delicate decision to make in perming two from Mike Catt, Paul Grayson and Jonny Wilkinson, the three surviving contenders for what the New Zealanders call the "five-eighths" positions. Elsewhere, though, Woodward is in clover. Martin Johnson is on the warpath in the second row, Richard Hill is playing quite beautifully on the flank and Kyran Bracken is underlining his status as a scrum-half of the highest quality. England also have a relatively gentle introduction to the tournament - the Scots at Twickenham - before the serious stuff starts in Dublin.

Prospects: Good enough, just, to take a new-look French side on home soil. The likely champions.

FRANCE

The Tricolores are a little red-faced just at the moment, what with their defeat by Australia before Christmas and the repeated embarrassments inflicted on their state-of-the-art club sides by Ulster. Still, Jean-Claude Skrela likes to look forward rather than back; aware that some of last season's Grand Slam contributors might not make it to the World Cup, he pulled a new threequarter line out of thin air and used it to kick a few Italian backsides in Genoa at the weekend. Emile Ntamack's return to optimum form is not great news for the home nations and, although they did not show it at Stradey Park or Ravenhill during the European Cup, the Stade Francais strike axis of Gomes, Dourthe and Comba is not the worst. Up front, they are only too recognisable: Califano, Tournaire, the Lievremont brothers, Magne... help.

Prospects: Dodgy goal-kicking may cost them a third Slam. Runners-up to England.

IRELAND

Can the island live up to the province? Almost certainly not; unlike the European Cup, which Ulster seized in such bracing fashion last Saturday, the Five Nations is not subject to an English boycott. For all the feistiness bubbling away in their pack and the home advantage they hold over the two tournament favourites, the Irish are thinking more in terms of victory over their fellow Celts. "We've set ourselves a goal of third place," says Warren Gatland, their coach. Kidology? No, just a realistic appraisal of Ireland's current station in life. They will be the hardest, most physical and comfortably the most spirited team in the championship but, Conor O'Shea aside, they are short of class out wide. A deluge of up-and-unders might occasionally do for a Toulouse or a Colomiers, but it does not cut much ice at international level.

Prospects: Fourth, which would be more satisfying than last year but not quite satisfying enough.

SCOTLAND

It never rains, but it lashes down with a vengeance. Scotland's domestic game has been cut to ribbons, its administration is riven with mistrust, the national side has lost three of its most influential players to injury and this season's away games are in London and Paris. Thanks very much. Back in November, after the Scots had given the Springboks a hurry-up in the first half of the Test at Murrayfield, Jim Telfer was in danger of smiling for the first time since the end of the 1997 Lions tour. Umpteen injuries down the road, the coach is in misery-guts mode once more. Scott Murray and Doddie Weir may earn themselves some brownie points in the second row and, if Tom Smith's body stops playing him up for a second, they will be able to boast the championship's most awkward scrummager. And that, sadly, is about it.

Prospects: Murrayfield used to be a stirring venue. The only stirring it will do this season is with a wooden spoon.

WALES

Vernon Pugh, Glanmor Griffiths and the Welsh Rugby Union will not want to hear this, but the joint rebellion by Cardiff and Swansea has done Graham Henry and his national side an immense favour. Exposed week in, week out to club rugby of genuine quality, the refusenik players - Jon Humphreys, Darren Morris, Colin Charvis, Mark Taylor, Scott Gibbs - have at last discovered the virtue of consistency. They are playing out of their skins, their confidence is right up there at cloud level and, all things being equal, they should be in a position to ask serious questions of the best. Sadly, things have recently become unequal. The loss of Craig Quinnell and Gareth Thomas to injury deprives Henry of two of his biggest hitters and he will find the first hole, in particular, wickedly difficult to fill. A good loose combination and a nifty back division, yes. But up at the sharp end? Um...

Prospects: Likely to prove the best of the Celts, but just as likely to go down big time in Paris. Third.

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