Alan Watkins: French remain percentage call to reverse early cup exchanges

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The Independent Online

I am sure that readers of this column are made of more durable stuff, so have no hesitation in pointing out that, in last weekend's Heineken Cup games, clubs from England and Wales won 67 per cent of the matches against French clubs; in the European Challenge Cup, the proportion was 75 per cent. The Irish provinces were otherwise engaged. The average success rate for British against French clubs in both competitions was 70 per cent.

Of course, it is early days yet. I still think a French club will come out top in the end. France still look the likeliest bet for the Six Nations Championship. And the majority of English and Welsh clubs had the home advantage which is critical in the Heineken competition. Even so, the gap in class between France and the rest was not quite as evident as it had been to most of my colleagues over the previous few days; or, if it was, it did not necessarily translate into points.

Slowly I am learning to call Neath-Swansea "the Ospreys" because that is what they want to be called, and I think you ought to be able to choose your own name. I cannot help remembering, however, that only a few seasons ago, when Wales were in the sump of their fortunes, some bright spark (probably from Marketing) decreed that henceforward they should be known as the Dragons. Alas, or perhaps happily, it failed to catch on. Wales remained Wales, not the Dragons. But for the moment let us stick to the Ospreys.

They put up a huge tackling performance to beat Stade Français in a match which everyone predicted they would lose. It was reminiscent of those games which Swansea used to play at the old St Helens ground against the visiting touring side or the Barbarians on Easter Monday, in those far-off days when the Baa-Baas were the Lions under another name, rather than a collection of individuals who had nothing better to do on the day. Sometimes Swansea won, and sometimes they lost, but always they put up a fight.

We should not become too carried away, because the full-back, Martin Hernandez, missed numerous easy penalties, not to mention a conversion, which would have put the French side comfortably into double figures.

But when Ryan Jones returns to No 8, the Ospreys will have a formidable back row in him, Jonathan Thomas and Ritchie Pugh, who looks a Wales prospect. Why do Llanelli not play a proper, specialist No 7, rather than Simon Easterby, injured on Saturday, who is at No 6 for Ireland and was a conspicuous success in the same position for the Lions in New Zealand?

Two weeks ago I raised the question of why Newcastle were allowed to change their entire front row when they were playing Llanelli at Stradey Park in the Powergen Cup. This was a practice which had been made illegal when it was frequently resorted to by London Irish some seasons ago. The Newcastle director of rugby, Rob Andrew, and the referee, Nigel Whitehouse, no doubt had better things to do than communicate with me or The Independent. But it would be nice to know why this wholesale substitution was allowed.

It may be that injury had something to do with it. Altogether it seems to me that the question of front rows and their substitution needs to be looked at again. On Saturday, for instance, Llanelli had the misfortune to lose both their experienced props against Toulouse. The referee, Chris White, immediately decreed uncontested scrums; to the detriment of the game and, I would argue, the disadvantage of the visiting side, though they would not have won on that account.

Yet the substitute for the injured Llanelli loose-head, Iestyn Thomas, was the specialist Phil John; while the player who came on in place of John Davies was the reserve hooker, Matthew Rees, who has played many times for the first team. If John and Rees are unable to look after themselves, even against Toulouse - as I am sure they would have been able to do - it is a poor lookout for rugby in West Wales. White was being much too cautious, but I suppose that was only to be expected in the compensation society.