Le Grand Slam

Against the odds, it was Wales who conquered all last year, but this season blue is the colour...
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The Independent Online

A couple of things are already clear. Italy will not win the Six Nations and Gavin Henson will not be able to produce a sequel to last season's blockbuster My Grand Slam Year. He is not short of material for a literary follow-up, but it will have to be called something else. For one thing he is out of the loop, and for another Wales are running short on miracles.

Although his 10-week ban for breaking the nose of the prop Alejandro Moreno during an inflammable Heineken Cup match between the Ospreys and Leicester was reduced to seven on appeal, Henson misses the key encounter with England at Twickenham and the following week's game against Scotland at the Millennium Stadium.

However, the centre who scored the match-winner against the English in Cardiff that sparked a national celebration and then some this time last year should be back in time to face Ireland in Dublin in round three on 26 February. If nothing else, it will provide a fascinating reunion between Henson and Brian O'Driscoll. When Wales secured the Slam by beating Ireland, Henson, according to his book, had several run-ins with the Irish captain. "How do you like that, you cocky little fucker?" O'Driscoll is reported to have said as he allegedly pulled Henson's hair - and that is some hair - and tried to eye-gouge him.

The trouble is that by the time they get to Lansdowne Road Wales's hopes of a sequel could have entered into past tense. At the Six Nations launch at the exclusive Hurlingham Club in London last week (the sponsors, RBS, could not have chosen a more quintessentially English venue), Andy Robinson, the England coach, thought that Wales were the favourites for the tournament - and he said it with a straight face.

Whether he likes it or not, most of the money on Saturday will be resting on the Red Rose brigade. A good start is essential and England should travel to Rome to meet Italy on the back of a reassuring victory over the Welsh, who are missing not only Henson but half a dozen other top performers. The heart may not have been torn out of the side but the limbs are in traction. Do they have the reserves to take the step up? Their excellent coaching team think so, but the English forwards will surely take this match by the scruff of the neck.

Whether the pack will include Lawrence Dallaglio, back in the squad after 19 months of self-imposed exile, remains to be seen, but it seems a bit daft to get him involved in training if he is going to play no part. England's 36-strong party will be reduced to 30 today, and another eight will be asked to leave the house on Tuesday.

Not that everything in England's garden is rosy. They have already lost Olly Barkley and Phil Vickery, and the last thing Robinson wanted was for his front-line troops to be inaction yesterday. "I haven't changed my view that if we're asking players to deliver performances of the greatest intensity they should be granted every opportunity to give of their best," Robinson said. "It's not happening the way I wanted and the players are caught in the middle. We've had to change our training but it's a matter of getting on with it."

Robinson had his men for as long as he wanted in the autumn, when they beat Australia and Samoa but let slip the biggest scalp of all, that of the All Blacks. The forwards won plenty of ball, but once it got beyond Charlie Hodgson it found a wilderness instead of a creative midfield. There are tries to be had for the back three, but they have got to get the centre partnership right.

On the issue of to play or not to play the week before a Test, Mike Ruddock, Robinson's counterpart, said: "Some people in England believe it's beneficial to have a hard game before an international, but in light of the injuries and suspensions our mindset is more geared to protecting players." Ruddock echoed his refreshing philosophy of last season, that Wales have a "licence to thrill." They have no choice but to keep the ball alive. There's no knowing how often they will see it.

The crunch of the whole damn shooting match should arrive at the Stade de France in March, when Les Rosbifs hit Paris. As ever, nobody, not even Bernard Laporte, has a clue as to whether the real France will turn up or an impostor. If it is not the former they could come unstuck against a revitalised Scotland at Murrayfield next Sunday.

The French have it all, includ-ing, unfortunately, a tendency to switch off when they seem to have the prize in their grasp. Look at Wales in Paris last season, when they staged, or were allowed to stage, a most astonishing comeback; look at Wasps' victory over Toulouse in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham in 2004; more recently, in the same competition, look at Leicester's renaissance against Stade Français at Welford Road. For Leicester read England? It's possible, but if France get out of their infuriating habit of smelling the roses instead of going for the jugular, a Grand Chelem could be theirs.

A key factor is that they have England at home and Stade de France, after all, is where they expect to feature in the 2007 World Cup final. Also, the French enjoyed a very fruitful autumn, beating Australia and, more significantly, South Africa. Do the results of the Heineken Cup have any bearing? No, say Wales, pointing out that they had nobody in the quarter-finals last year and that didn't stop them sweeping the board in the Six Nations. But they would say that.

Whereas the crême de la crême of the clubs in England and France have fought their way to the knockout stages of rugby's answer to the Champions' League, the four Welsh regions again found the Heineken too strong for their taste. A whiff of the barmaid's apron and they were heading for the saloon doors. The disappearance of Cardiff, in particular, has to be a big worry. Faced with a great chance of progressing, they managed the princely sum of two penalties in their last two matches, which brought heavy defeats by Perpignan and Leeds.

The Irish, on the other hand, rose to the challenge quite magnificently, with Munster destroying Sale in Fortress Limerick and O'Driscoll's Leinster doing an equally impressive job on Bath at the Rec. It is bound to have given all Ireland a lift, and just at the right time.

So too the form of the Lions captain, whose dazzling display at Bath put paid to any doubts as to whether he would fully recover, mentally and physically, from his dislocated shoulder in New Zealand. He looks better than ever. Ireland's problem is that, after what should be a relatively comfortable opener against Italy, they are away to both France and England. Still, the green party hate being burdened with great expectations. In their view, a man's best friend is an underdog.

Replay 1980: A famous win on an infamous day

It is 26 years since Wales last came to Twickenham as reigning Five/Six Nations champions. The good old days of no-holds-barred rugby, or a prehistoric cesspit of clubbing, grunting and kicking?

"One of the roughest and most abrasive [matches] ever seen at Twickenham" was how Rothmans Rugby Yearbook described the 1980 England-Wales encounter on 16 February. Paul Ringer, the Llanelli blindside flanker, was sent off in the first 15 minutes for a late tackle on England's fly-half, John Horton. Playing with 14 men was a heavy handicap against an England side captained by Billy Beaumont and - after wins over Ireland at home and France away - eagerly sniffing their first Grand Slam since 1957.

Wales, a declining force, were hellbent on going down with a fight. "There was very little rugby in this crazy game," wrote England's No 8, Roger Uttley, who was substituted needing 10 stitches to a wound from a boot to the head. "Everybody was at each other's throats and growling."

The Welsh scrum wheeled like a spinning top but a Jeff Squire try gave the visitors a 4-3 lead at half-time. Leicester's farmer/full-back Dusty Hare kicked his second penalty for England, then Elgan Rees scored Wales's second try. But Wales suffered from four different kickers missing seven kicks at goal and, in a match of 34 penalties, the ever-trusty Hare landed the decisive points from wide out on the right in added time. The 9-8 win kept England's Grand Slam dream - to be completed in Scotland - alive, but arguably a little bit of the beauty of the game died.

Hugh Godwin