On Saturday morning my prediction for the Six Nations' Championship was: 1 France, 2 England, 3 Ireland, 4 Wales, 5 Scotland, 6 Italy. Luckily, I did not follow my usual practice and make a small investment (as the bookies like to call it) in France. I held back, not because the odds of 100-30 were on the ungenerous side, as they were, but because something told me the French coach Bernard Laporte's new outfit might be what engineers term an unstable structure.
So they turned out to be in the first match of the competition, against Italy, whose admission to the championship I originally supported. Now I think I was probably mistaken. They consistently prop up the table like a piece of folded cardboard under one of the legs. It is becoming monotonous and not good for anyone. But now they are in, they cannot decently be kicked out.
By 4pm on Sunday I had revised my prediction. In fact, it did not take as long as that. By half-time in the Dublin match it was clear I had underestimated Ireland and been over-generous towards my native land. In the revised prediction England and Ireland were joint top, with France at three and Scotland overtaking Wales. Indeed, after the Dublin game, I thought their performance had been so abject that they deserved to drop below Italy.
Certainly, Scotland put up a technically better and (what is perhaps more important) a more spirited show against England than Wales were able to do against Ireland on the next day. With a more accomplished tight-head prop than Matt Stewart and a new partner for Scott Murray at lock, they would have as good a pack as that of any country in the competition.
Before the match, talking to a friend, I welcomed the selection of Duncan Hodge following the enforced move of Gregor Townsend to centre. He might not, I said, be the most exciting player in his position in the world – he might not even be the most exciting in Scotland – but at least he could kick his goals with a reliability which Scotland had lacked since those happy days when they had a choice between Craig Chalmers and Gavin Hastings. Today one can only sympathise with the poor lad.
But even if Hodge had been on his usual form, it is doubtful whether Scotland would have won. There is no legislating against a Jason Robinson as that now unappreciated Welsh outside-half David Watkins (a similar player in several ways, not least in his power of acceleration) once put it: "If I don't know where I'm going, how does anybody else?''
Will Greenwood played an important role in this and in other aspects of the game. It was always obvious to me that his best position was inside centre. Last season, Clive Woodward, the England coach, played him on the outside to accommodate Mike Catt. We were earnestly informed, by Woodward and commentators alike, that the Catt-Jonny Wilkinson partnership was crucial to England's success or, rather, to the pattern which Woodward wished the team to follow. Now we are told by those very same authorities that the partnership was not so crucial after all. Would people kindly try to make up their minds?
The same question might be addressed to the Wales coach, Graham Henry. He is no longer the most popular boy in the Principality, as at one time he was, certainly after the win over South Africa. But there was always resentment at the size of his annual salary or retainer, now £250,000. This feeling was compounded by his wife's position as coach to the Wales netball team. It was said that the Henrys would be the richest couple ever to return from these shores to New Zealand. The Welsh Rugby Union is so poor, and Henry, who is on a three-year contract is paid so much, that he cannot, it seems, be paid off without causing the gravest inconvenience.
The excuse which is being trotted out – that Wales has such a small playing base – will not stand serious inspection. Irish rugby has a smaller base and, additionally, faces the competition of football, hurling and gaelic football. In Scotland the game at its highest level is now concentrated in only two teams. In Australia it is rivalled by football, rugby league and Australian Rules football. Henry's own native islands are the most similar to Wales. And where does that leave us?
He has also made straightforward errors of selection. Of the pack who started the match on Sunday, I should have chosen only two, Chris Wyatt and Scott Quinnell – with, in place of the others, Martyn Madden, Barry Williams, Darren Morris, Andy Moore, Colin Charvis and Brett Sinkinson. At least they might have tried harder.Reuse content