Alan Watkins: In Paris in the spring, an Englishman prays for rain

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The Independent Online

It turns out that the broadcasters were right to schedule France v England as the last match of the Six Nations' Championship, and the rugby authorities were equally right to accede to their wishes - or, if you prefer to put it this way, to surrender without a battle to superior force.

It turns out that the broadcasters were right to schedule France v England as the last match of the Six Nations' Championship, and the rugby authorities were equally right to accede to their wishes - or, if you prefer to put it this way, to surrender without a battle to superior force.

Where they were both wrong was in kicking off the match at 8pm on a Saturday evening, a ridiculous 9pm Paris time. Even the restaurants will be shut by the time the proceedings come to a close shortly before 11pm, for it is a great English fallacy to believe that you can eat properly in France at any time you choose.

If we are to have Sunday fixtures in the competition at all - an innovation which, I confess, I do not much like - there was everything to be said for holding this match on the Sunday afternoon. Indeed, a sunny Sunday afternoon in Paris in the spring could be the ideal location for the competition to reach its conclusion.

It was during an evening fixture, we may remember, that France were annihilated by England at Twickenham in September last year. And it was raining when England beat them conclusively in the World Cup. On that occasion the England head coach, Clive Woodward, tried to forestall any French excuses for their disorganised performance by pointing out that it rained in France too. He knew, because he had been there on his holidays once, and it had rained all the time. He must be praying for more rain on Saturday.

Neither side has so far been wholly convincing this season. Against Scotland, France seemed to be operating at roughly 75 per cent of their capacity, if that. It is worth pointing out, perhaps, that Scotland held their own in the scrum, and more than held their own in the line-out, without scoring a single point themselves, while having 31 points put up against them.

This argues a lamentable lack of invention in the Scottish backs. It is, however, equally possible to conclude that parity in the set-pieces is not quite so valuable a commodity as most commentators now agree it is. For the Scots achieved parity, and where did it get them? The England v Wales match illustrates my same sceptical point. Wales did not achieve parity. They lost a lot of line-out ball. Their scrum did not look entirely comfortable all afternoon, and when Julian White came on in the last 10 minutes it looked close to breaking point. And yet, despite all this, it was a match which Wales could and should have won.

I do not blame Stephen Jones, but if he had managed to knock over one penalty and one conversion early in the second half, Wales would at that stage have been 26-16 up instead of 21-16. This might have affected the final result because England would have had that much steeper a hill to climb. I do not blame Jones, but I cannot help feeling that Neil Jenkins would have managed both kicks without too much difficulty.

The trouble is not that the Welsh side are "too small'', an observation that is frequently to be heard. The Welsh pack weighed exactly as much as their opponents, both averaging 17st 2lb.

Nor is it fair to put the blame on the front row. Gethin Jenkins, Duncan Jones and, before he was injured, Adam Jones have all made contributions to Welsh tries which were invaluable, the last of these players going so far as to score one himself. It is a vulgar error to suppose that props are stupid people whose activities should be confined to grunting and groaning. We have only to think of Cliff Davies and Graham Price.

Steve Hansen, the retiring Wales coach, put his side together in the World Cup largely by accident. Shane Williams, normally discarded as a wing by Hansen's predecessor, Graham Henry, was taken out to Australia as third-choice scrum-half. Gareth Thomas had not even been thought of as a full-back.

However, Henry did not entirely make a mess of the Welsh side as he did of the Lions tour of Australia. One of his achievements was to fix a settled back row of Colin Charvis, Scott Quinnell and Martyn Williams. When Quinnell retired from the international game, Hansen had only to choose an adequate replacement.

There was one readily to hand in Michael Owen, a natural No 8. Instead he was shoved into the second row and Hansen chose a back row consisting of three No 6s. It was advanced lunacy to leave Williams, one of the best no 7s in the home nations - the others being Neil Back and Keith Gleeson - on the bench in the last two games.

But then, Woodward is pursuing exactly the same back-row policy with England, and much good is it doing him. It is not a mistake the French are likely to make, though one can never tell.

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