Rugby Union: Wales will have to perform miracles to win outright this season

Alan Watkins on Rugby
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The Independent Online
AFTER the Dublin match several current and former Welsh players were asked about the prospects of a share in the Five Nations' Championship if they managed to beat France at Wembley on 5 April. They smiled shyly and replied that, well, "anything was possible in this world".

Evidently neither they nor their questioners had fully absorbed the new rules of the competition. Until 1992 the countries level on points in the table as the result of matches (two for a win, one for a draw) shared the title. Thus France and Ireland shared it in 1983, France and Scotland in 1986, France and Wales in 1988; and in 1973 there was a five- way tie.

After 1992 the title was finally decided by the difference in points for and against in the four matches each country would have played. So in 1994 England beat Wales at Twickenham on the last Saturday of the season. But it was Ieuan Evans, the then Welsh captain, who collected the new trophy under the points- difference rule.

This was the last time Wales won the championship. It is not so long ago when you come to think about it, despite the noise of wailing and gnashing of teeth which has been audible from my native land for the past 20 years; or so it seems to be to me.

But Wales will have to perform miracles to win outright this season: not only to beat France - which is possible - but also to beat them by a huge margin. In the current table they are level with England, after three matches each, with four points. But they have a deficit of 19 points, while England are in credit to the sum of 41. France, with three wins out of three, have a credit of 44.

You do not have to be Professor Stephen Hawking to work out the possibilities. If England beat Ireland at Twickenham on 4 April, and Wales beat France at Wembley on the next day, three countries will have won three matches, and the outcome will be decided on points difference.

In the circumstances England are well in line to take the title. In points difference thus far they are trailing France by only three.

I hope this outcome does not come about, for several reasons. I think Ireland deserve to emerge with something from this year's competition. Though I admire what Clive Woodward, the England coach, is trying to do, I possess no such warm feelings for the new Twickenham crowd, who manage to combine ignorance with chauvinism in roughly equal proportions. And last - and certainly not least - I have pounds 100 (plus pre-paid tax) on France to win the championship at the highly favourable price of 13-8.

Accordingly what would suit me best on the weekend of 4-5 April would be for Ireland to beat England, and Wales to beat France, but by a margin of less then 63, which is a fairly reasonable supposition in the circumstances.

France would then win the championship even though they had won only three out of four matches. If they beat Wales, even by the narrowest of margins, they would take the championship however many points England had managed to pile up against Ireland on the previous day, because they would have won four matches and the Grand Slam.

Something tells me that on Sunday 5 April my economic self-interest will be at odds with my sentimental feelings. England, alas, will have beaten Ireland comfortably, by 20 or 30 points. But Wales will walk out on to Wembley - a ground that seems to suit them, as it certainly does their supporters - determined to give an inevitably nervous France a run for their money.

For once Kevin Bowring, the Welsh coach, has, not, perhaps, a luxury of choice, but a comfortable leeway in certain positions. For instance, does he prefer Leigh Davies to Scott Gibbs, who is fully fit? And does he keep Stuart Davies in the side, while moving Colin Charvis across to the position in which he first distinguished himself for his country, at No 7?

When Davies was first recalled as a substitute in preference to Scott Quinnell, my first response was to think that this was a bit like bringing back Cecil Parkinson to add some much-needed sparkle to the Conservative Party. Not at all: when Davies was substituted for Kingsley Jones, with Charvis moving to the open side, he ran away from the Irish cover and gave the excellent Neil Jenkins his try.

My ideal outcome, as I say, would be a win for Ireland and for Wales. In the unlikely event of Wales being able to score enough points to leapfrog France on points difference, I should be prepared to grin and bear it, even though I should have lost pounds 100-plus.

It is more likely, I fear, that my money on France will be sacrificed to England rather than to my native land.