The Six Nations Championship always manages to be slightly more interesting than the Eurovision Song Contest, which is admittedly not too difficult. But every year it comes round in much the same way. This year the bookies are offering evens France, 15-8 England, 4-1 Wales, 14-1 Ireland, 66-1 Scotland and 750-1 Italy.
There are slight variations. With one firm, France were already 5-4 on at the beginning of the week; while it was still possible to get 16-1 against Ireland. Even at the slightly shorter price, 14-1, this strikes me as the only truly sporting bet on offer.
England are as ungenerously priced as they usually are, which presumably reflects the weight of patriotic, Twickenham money which either has been staked or, the bookies anticipate, will be staked. For once, Wales are not a particularly good bet. We are left with Ireland. But then, at this stage of the season, we usually are.
The only difference this time round is that the coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, and one or two of the senior players have stopped making optimistic claims on their own behalf. Perhaps they think that a period of silence on their part will change their luck. This tends to consist of winning one or two difficult matches - against, say, France, England or even both - and going down to Scotland and Wales. As usual, I wish them well but, as usual likewise, I am not investing any money in them, even though they present the sole sporting bet.
Charlie Hodgson is not the only person to dislike Twickenham. It is a feeling overwhelmingly shared by my fellow countrymen. This was so well before the construction of the present concrete Leviathan. Players and supporters alike were just as apprehensive of the old dark green structure, where the ghosts of the dominant England teams of the inter-war period still flittered in and out of the corrugated iron.
Oddly enough, the Welsh supporters thoroughly enjoyed their trips to Wembley, which they adopted as their own ground even before the famous victory over England of 1999, when Scott Gibbs scored the try of which, he tells us, he hates being reminded.
But the new Twickenham has characteristics which the old stadium did not possess. Hodgson may think it is silent, but I can assure him that, compared to the old place, it is a hotbed of enthusiasm. In fact I know perfectly well what Hodgson means, and he is right. When things are not going well for England, it falls into a sulky silence.
Nor is it a specially knowledgeable crowd. For example, who has the put-in at a scrum is a largely technical matter. Hysterically applauding an England put-in is plain silly.
What is worse is the habit of turning on individual England players. Hodgson may feel hard done by. But, if it is of any consolation to him, I can assure him that Mike Catt used to be treated just as badly. Here again, misplaced kicks - in Catt's case, out of hand rather than at goal - were the cause. Once the crowd had decided that Catt was not up to much, he was jeered whenever he had the ball in his hand.
Hodgson went further than this. He was critical of the absence of a constructive inside-centre; of, in New Zealand terminology, a second five-eighth. This was before yesterday's announcement of the England team by Andy Robinson, the coach. In particular, Robinson had been criticised for playing those two solid citizens, Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon, in the pre-Christmas internationals, when England did not distinguish themselves in their back play.
Last Saturday the Wasps centre Stuart Abbott gave an excellent performance against Bath, though his side lost. I wonder how much Abbott has to do to play himself into the England side. Sometimes he must wonder the same himself.
England's only consolation in this respect, it seems to me, is that Robinson's favoured centre pairing will have against them a provisional-looking duo of Hal Luscombe and Matthew Watkins. Watkins has been in line for a starting-XV cap for some time, but Luscombe has been tried before, at centre and on the wing, and has failed to come up to expectations. I would have preferred Ceri Sweeney, who was on the bench until he withdrew yesterday with a groin injury, inside Watkins.
Once again, Robinson has followed the traditional English recipe of putting his trust in force. And once again it may work. But I am restricting myself to £100 invested in France.Reuse content