Rugby Union: Underdogs have only a cat's chance

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The Independent Online
IT WAS, if memory serves me right, at Stade Colombes in 1969 - the last time that Scotland won in Paris - that a pack of playing cards fell out of a French player's pocket during the game. What were they doing there? Had the French being playing strip poker in the changing-room before kick-off or were they intending to while away the time with a couple of hands of gin rummy in between Maso, Lux, Spanghero and Dauga scoring tries and Villepreux converting them? The French certainly held all the aces that day but the joker in the pack was a Scot, Jim Telfer, who scored the try that won the match.

It is the delicious uncertainty of the Five Nations' Championship that is so enthralling. The Scots will go to Paris this week, their chances of victory no higher than those of their predecessors 24 years ago, while the chill of Cardiff's unique atmosphere will once again raise goose-pimples on the skins of 15 Englishmen.

Even so, I do not believe that the Welsh will come close to beating England. Ever since the crowning years in the Seventies or, as Carwyn James once put it, the crowing years, the Welsh have had little to crow about. Victory over England not only made a Welshman's day, but his entire season. It is that narrow horizon which Alan Davies has sought to broaden and a fine job he is doing. But Davies knows only too well that there is still much to be done.

Wales go into Saturday's game with an untried front row and, despite their surprisingly high rate of productivity early on against Australia, with a threadbare line-out. Neil Jenkins, recalled at outside-half, should bring more authority to the position than the deposed and, one assumes, seriously depressed Colin Stephens, but less certain is his ability to get the best out of his backs.

Not that this is likely to be a high priority in the opening exchanges. The Welsh, having seen the damage inflicted on Jon Webb by Didier Camberabero and Thierry Lacroix, will presumably have the English full-back as their main target. Throughout that fearsome French pounding Webb remained quite calm. The mistakes had been made and were just as quickly erased from his mind. Others, however, were determined to remind him of his misfortunes and when he walked into work on the Monday morning he found himself under a barrage of cushions, scissors and kidney dishes thrown at him by his hospital colleagues. He dropped the lot.

According to one critic, England's problems would be solved by the return of Dean Richards at No 8 in place of Ben Clarke. Clarke, we were told, had been flabbergasted that his contribution to England's victory a fortnight ago should have received praise from so many quarters. No doubt he was equally surprised to learn from the same source that he was a donkey. Not only that, but were a donkey derby to be staged today, Clarke would come last. Bless my soul] How could so many of us have got it so terribly wrong?

This, however, is apparently a view shared by sundry experts, members all of the Dean Richards Restoration Society. No one would argue that Richards has been a towering presence in England's pack and that he possesses many qualities which Clarke does not. But the reverse is also true. Their styles defy comparison, but they are not necessarily incompatible, which is precisely why the selectors have kept faith with a player as adept in the tight loose situations as Mike Teague. There are few fitter players in the England squad than the Moseley flanker, but Teague is still short of match sharpness and with John Hall challenging so strongly for a place on England's blind side, Teague needs a good game.

Rob Andrew has enough in the bank to overcome another indifferent performance but, like Teague, he lacks the sharpness which comes from exposure to top-class competitive rugby each week. He and Dewi Morris laboured behind England's troubled pack a fortnight ago.

The squad had this weekend to put things right. They must first come to terms with the new laws, produce better and quicker ball and, when they have it, make the right decisions. It is as easy as that and, given that the Welsh pack, fired up as it will be, is unlikely to present England with the challenge they faced against France, I am convinced that it really will be as easy as that.

It is the Scots who must now do battle with the resurgent French, and in Paris that is an awesome task. There was never any likelihood of Alan Sharp being fit despite his incarceration for the last couple of weeks in his hyperbaric space capsule. So the Scots will have to face a French scrum which exposed the tiniest of chinks in England's formidable armoury, without a recognised loose-head.

With Abdel Benazzi and Olivier Roumat - now putting their country before personal aggrandisement - and Laurent Cabannes, the French also have a line-out. Unlike the Irish, France will want to bring their backs into play. They attempted it, albeit with limited success in the conditions at Twickenham, but even so Philippe Saint-Andre was the man of the match.

The Scots' adventure behind the scrum against Ireland was admirable and against a defence as thoroughly disorganised as the Irish was obviously the right tactic. Possession in Paris could be more of a problem. Gary Armstrong and Craig Chalmers will bear the responsibility of making the most out of what they get. They have played long enough together to have forged a close understanding but they are still better individually than as a partnership. Armstrong remains the biggest single influence in this Scottish side, but were they to pursue their policy of moving the ball wide then the Scots might have to review their half-back pairing and give serious consideration to the re-employment of Andy Nicol at scrum-half.

In Paris, however, they will need Armstrong's strength, competitiveness and courage. They will need that from all 15 if they are to succeed. But even at their best, form and history are against them. The odds are on a French win in Paris and England to beat Wales in Cardiff. And oh, by the way, if, en route to the National Stadium, you should stumble across a small group carrying placards with the words 'Drop the Dead Donkey', Ben Clarke would very much like to meet them.