Odds are stacked against Woodward's walking wounded

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The Independent Online

The odds for the Six Nations' Championship are England 11-10, France 9-4, Wales 4-1, Scotland 6-1, Ireland 14-1 and Italy 250-1 with one bookmaker. I confess I was surprised when I was told the odds against England. Do the bookmakers really think England are going to win the championship? Or are they anticipating the weight of patriotic money that is going to speed in their direction in the next few days? Either way, it does not strike me as a good bet.

The odds for the Six Nations' Championship are England 11-10, France 9-4, Wales 4-1, Scotland 6-1, Ireland 14-1 and Italy 250-1 with one bookmaker. I confess I was surprised when I was told the odds against England. Do the bookmakers really think England are going to win the championship? Or are they anticipating the weight of patriotic money that is going to speed in their direction in the next few days? Either way, it does not strike me as a good bet.

Clive Woodward, the England coach, is stuck with a collection of players who are not so much walking wounded as lying prone on various treatment tables throughout the land. Perhaps visiting those commando centres was not such a bright idea after all. Two of his three world-class performers, Martin Johnson and Dan Luger, are unavailable. The third, Lawrence Dallaglio, is fit but increasingly tetchy of late as captain of Wasps, and no wonder. With Richard Hill and Neil Back he makes up Woodward's favourite back row and together with the new captain, Matt Dawson, they will find themselves doing most of the work.

Dawson, though he seems an irritating sort of character, as so many scrum-halves are, has never let England down. What he would like, I am fairly sure, would be a stable, long-term relationship with a nice partner outside him. Most successful teams are, for obvious reasons, built round a settled pairing of half-backs.

This can be tough on the discarded outside-halves or scrum- halves. Where would Phil Bennett have been if Barry John had not retired young? But just as Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, has rightly or wrongly decided to prefer Neil Jenkins over Arwel Thomas, so Woodward has failed to choose among Jonny Wilkinson, Paul Grayson and Alex King. It is his most crucial failure of decision among, I fear, many others.

Nor, at 4-1, do I find Wales over-generously priced. The word has somehow got around that this is going to be their year. I hope I am proved wrong, but I cannot for the life of me see why it should be. Wales won their two championship matches last season by one solitary point in extra time. Nor did they exactly shine in the World Cup.

Still, Henry has put together perhaps the most formidable front row in the competition in Peter Rogers, Garin Jenkins and David Young, the new captain. He has a settled "spine" in Shane Howarth, Neil Jenkins, Robert Howley, Garin Jenkins and Scott Quinnell, who has returned to something like his old form.

But there is a lack of certainty everywhere else, with Scott Gibbs both injured and out of form, and a want of true pace on the wings. I have not seen the latest flying wonder, Shane Williams of Neath. But on Saturday I did see the most impressive wing of the season in Vaughan Going, playing on the left for London Welsh against Coventry in the Tetley's Bitter Cup.

He has a touch of Gerald Davies, a hint of Dickie Guest, a flavour of Peter Jackson. And at 5ft 10ins and 14 stones (though he does not look it) he is at 28 bigger than they were at their peak. Unfortunately, he comes from New Zealand. He is the nephew of Syd Going, but I cannot see a little detail like that bothering Henry. After all, a lot of Welsh people have "Vaughan" as a surname. There must be a granny somewhere.

Judged by form in the last championship and the World Cup alike, the odds against Scotland and Wales should be reversed. It follows that Scotland are a good bet. The trouble is that two under-estimated players who would nevertheless have walked into any British Isles XV over the past couple of years have retired.

I refer, of course, to Gary Armstrong and Alan Tait. While there is no one of Armstrong's stature around, Scotland have plenty of centres in John Leslie, James Mayer and the Bourgoin-based Jim McLaren. But somehow I feel Scotland had their moments of glory last year.

Then most of us jumped on to the Ulster European bandwagon and thought that, by a process of rugby osmosis - for Warren Gatland, the Ireland coach, picked hardly any Ulstermen - the national side would prosper likewise. It did not happen. Munster is the new Ulster. And Irish supporters are once again talking a good game.

France are even more of a puzzle than usual, partly because they have a new coach, and partly because last year they progressed, for no very clear reason, from the ridiculous in the championship to the sublime in that semi-final against New Zealand. I am glad Marc Dal Maso has been restored at hooker and that a firm decision appears to have been arrived at to retain Christophe Lamaison at outside-half and to introduce Thomas Castaignÿde at full-back.

The price of 9-4 seems distinctly generous. Though Saturday's match at Cardiff will be a difficult one, I shall be, as the bookies delicately put it, investing £100 on France.

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