Alan Watkins: My toe reveals that man is mightier than the machine

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The Independent Online

The Heineken European Cup is now one of the best rugby competitions in the world, perhaps the best of all. But exciting though it undoubtedly is, it does no more than confirm the balance of European power which was evident in what are called the autumn internationals, even though they take place in the winter: 1 France, 2 Ireland, 3 England, 4 Wales, 5 Scotland, 6 Italy.

The last two could be contesting the bottom spot, as they may well be doing in the Six Nations Championship which starts next month. Wales have talked a good game, as they have done consistently since the World Cup in 2003. Oddly enough, I have nothing much against this boastfulness, for what my late father used to call "silly talk, mun'' is at least preferable to the rain-sodden gloom which descended on my native land for much of the 1990s.

But if you are a classy outfit, as Llanelli Scarlets are still supposed to be, just about, you do not allow a hooker such as Steve Thompson to score a try of which Bleddyn Williams would have been proud. Admittedly, he was a hooker who had started off life as a flanker and was, at this stage of the game, playing as a flanker once more. But that is no excuse.

I do not want to be too hard on a club for which I retain a sentimental regard, but I cannot help remembering that it was in one of the opening matches of the competition, when Toulouse were visiting Stradey Park, that Gareth Thomas was booed whenever he touched the ball. His sole offence, as far as I could see, was that he was a former player for several Welsh clubs (not including Llanelli) before deciding to pass the evening of his rugby days in France.

This distasteful episode comes to mind because on Sunday the crowd at Welford Road went in for a spot of booing of their own. They booed Leicester off the field at half-time and they gave them the same treatment at the final whistle as well, when the home side had lost the match.

It maybe that Leicester deserved some indication of disapproval at half-time, for they had not played well, regularly finding the touchline with their passes. But in the second half they pulled themselves together, scored 17 points to Biarritz's three, and could conceivably have won - however unjustly - if the match had lasted another 10 minutes. What the crowd was booing was not a poor home performance but a deserved French victory.

Have you noticed, by the way, that, when it does not involve abstruse calculations all the real news is now about injuries? It is not just poor Jonny Wilkinson but a host of other, chiefly English unfortunates. One of the conse-quences of the modern game is that scarcely a day goes by without our being told that so-and-so is off for a scan. The electro-magnetic scan seems to have quite replaced the X-ray examination as the approved device for detecting injury. It is also more expensive. Within the last 13 months I have, as it happens, had two scans for what started off as a nasty inflam-mation of the left foot (which, I am happy to report, is fine now).

It is by no means a simple operation. You have to get to the hospital, don a sort of nightie that ties at the back and hang around until, prone, you are propelled into a gigantic tube. If it is only the foot, the head and upper body stay outside. But this does not stop the irregular bongs and other noises which sound like something out of an early episode of Doctor Who. The whole performance lasts about an hour and is painless but, to me, oddly disconcerting.

Afterwards I asked the young lady in attendance what it would have cost if it had been done privately and not under the NHS. "About £700,'' was the answer on both occasions. Both times also a medic saw me some weeks later and said (the conversations were virtually identical):

"'Fraid you've fractured a toe, old man.'' "Oh no I haven't,'' I said, "because if I had I'd have known about it at the time.'' "Sorry, old man, but a scan doesn't lie.'' "If I've fractured a toe, it was a long, long time ago.'' There the matter rests. Man is mightier than the machine: that is what I say. In the meantime, I suppose we are all of us paying for rugby-related scans through the insurance industry.

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