Immediately after the end of the inaugural Six Nations' Championship, which (against the expectations of some) turned out a success, I picked a "form" team from the four home nations. They included as wings Shane Horgan and Shane Williams and as open-side flanker Neil Back. Today I would include Iain Balshaw as one of the wings and Budge Pountney instead of Back.
This does not, I hope, demonstrate that I am fickle in my judgements but rather that form now goes up and down like the property market in Islington. Was it not always so, I hear you ask? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that players have always had some spells when they can do nothing wrong, others when they can do nothing right. But no, to the extent that professionalism and a crowded season impose strains on players which previously they did not experience.
Here is a list of players, by no means exhaustive, who, for a variety of reasons - loss of form, injuries, fallings out with coach or manager - have had a disappointing or, indeed, a non-existent season: Kyran Bracken, Richard Cockerill, Scott Gibbs, Danny Grewcock, Steve Hanley, Robert Howley, Martin Johnson, John Leslie, Dan Luger, Craig Quinnell, David Rees, Paul Wallace, Chris Wyatt. In April 1999 all would have been considered candidates for a Lions party. Some of them - Howley, Johnson, Leslie, Luger and Wallace - would have been certainties for the Test XV.
How are the mighty fallen! I do not write that in any gloating spirit. On the contrary: rugby has become always demanding, often brutal, sometimes cruel. We should display nothing but sympathy for those playing it who fall by the wayside. What is evident, however, is that many if not most of those I have just listed will be back next season and will be candidates for the Lions party to tour Australia in 2001.
Contrariwise, some of those who appear to be certainties now may look less impressive when the party comes to be picked. The player of the season was undoubtedly Brian O'Driscoll. I hope he maintains his form. The runner-up was Matt Dawson. I hope the same for him.
Dawson became both the best captain in the Six Nations and the outstanding scrum-half. Howley was deprived of the Welsh captaincy by Graham Henry, the coach, then lost his place in the national side to Rupert Moon. In 1997, through injury, he lost his place in the Test series against South Africa to Dawson, who, in a winning side, scored one of the great international tries. Dawson may have made the best of his chances and has deserved his luck. But he has been lucky all the same.
Howley, by contrast, almost justifies his appearance of having just come off the afternoon shift after a heavy and unsatisfactory day at the coalface. He has had rotten luck. Whether Henry should have appointed him captain in the first place must be open to doubt. He went on to deprive him of the captaincy for a perfectly sound reason: that, owing to the additional responsibility, his play was suffering. Howley took this hard. Henry seemed to respond by being huffy. The episode does not seem to have been well handled by Henry.
Likewise with the expulsion of Cockerill to whatever is rugby's equivalent of the Siberian power station. Perhaps it is the substitutes' bench at Welford Road. His offence was to write disobligingly about the habit of Clive Woodward, the England coach, of conveying disagreeable news to his players by e-mail, instead of talking to them directly. Here I am on Cockerill's side. Bad news should be communicated either, preferably, face-to-face or on the telephone. As a third choice, a hand-written letter is acceptable in polite society.
My advice to Henry and to Woodward alike is to grow up. We have always had selectors' bÃªtes-noires. But in an era when individual coaches or managers wield more power than ever over players, they must put aside considerations of personal pique and choose on merit alone. I have always thought it ridiculous that the first-class cricket season should start in April, when there is sometimes snow on the ground, as there has been this year. The real reason why it starts then is that it suits the convenience of the Oxford and Cambridge sides, who want to get in as much cricket as possible before the university match in midsummer and who had more clout in olden times than they have today.
It is not quite so ridiculous that the rugby season should extend into May, as it now does. The climate of that month in this country is usually perfect for the game. And we have not yet gone as far as the French, who, in a much warmer climate, are still playing in June. But we are moving in the French direction, which I deplore. For me, rugby ends in April and cricket begins in May, though I shall not be so blinkered as to neglect the later stages of the Heineken European Cup. But this column is drawing peacefully to its close until next season, with all good wishes in particular to my regular correspondents.
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