Only way is up for Celts

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The Independent Online

The Celts have never looked sicker after the first round of the championship. The Scots, Welsh and Irish each chose the same day to have historic stinkers - and to think we were all worried for Italy.

The Celts have never looked sicker after the first round of the championship. The Scots, Welsh and Irish each chose the same day to have historic stinkers - and to think we were all worried for Italy.

We can only content ourselves with the thought that they cannot possibly all play as badly again. For the sake of the tournament, I sincerely hope not, otherwise they will spend the rest of it scrambling for scraps and the English will start moaning again about the lack of decent opposition.

The Celtic nations have all proved in the past that they can bounce back from faulty starts, but they have got some harsh lessons to learn before they can start making amends on Saturday. Wales look to have the easiest task when they meet Italy at home. They certainly won't repeat Scotland's mistake of thinking they are in for an easy time. The Welsh crowd won't be in any mood to go easy on them if they don't move up several gears from the slow, one-paced display that encouraged France to go on the rampage last weekend.

To be honest, Wales haven't looked a really good side since they beat South Africa in the run-up to the World Cup. But they didn't disgrace themselves when losing in the quarter-final against Australia - looking back at that performance it was commendable compared to their offering against France.

I hope to see Allan Bateman and Craig Quinnell in the team, and if the young Neath flyer Shane Williams isn't in the starting line-up I trust he will be brought on sooner than he was against France. I would also like to see Shane Howarth more involved in attacks,but they will achieve nothing without quicker phase play.

Italy will bring a lot of confidence to the Millennium Stadium and will make Wales pay for any complacency, just like they did Scotland, who found the first 10 minutes so comfortable they eased off. After losing their skipper, John Leslie, and with Kenny Logan off-target, the Scots practically invited Diego Dominguez to take charge.

Ireland had a much tougher proposition at Twickenham, but you wouldn't have thought so the way they approached the game. Whatever their deficiencies, you were entitled to expect the Irish to come out with all guns blazing. But nothing they had was loaded and I couldn't believe the tackles they missed.

England hardly needed the points they gifted them. One of the most refreshing aspects of the English display was that they brought in some young backs and didn't harness them to a rigid game-plan. They were encouraged to express themselves and they did just that, especially Ben Cohen, who was very impressive.

It was good to see Mike Catt excel. I've always felt that centre is his best position, and he revels in having dummy runners. His best season for Bath was when he played outside Stuart Barnes. When he does not have to think about controlling the game he can play his natural, instinctive style. He's a good athlete, deceptively quick, and with other runners to take defenders away he is very dangerous.

The one thing from the Irish game that should worry England as they prepare for Paris is that the Irish scored an easy try through the forwards. There will be an awesome difference in facing this French pack, who can be so dominant without being spectacular. They provide a rock-solid platform, and their coach, Bernard Laporte, is getting a much more disciplined game out of them. The English forwards must get quick ball if they are to have a chance but I fear they are really going to be up against it.

I have to take France to win in Paris, Wales to beat Italy and Ireland to make home advantage count against Scotland. And some good rugby from the Celtic fringe would be a great blessing.

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