Ruddock's revivalists in reach of glory

A winning start is crucial - and Robinson's wounded England are ripe for the taking in Cardiff
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England are not in the habit of thinking the unthinkable, so the prospect of defeat by Wales in Cardiff on Saturday is forbidden from gate-crashing their party. Nevertheless, when they cross the Severn they will not do so with the air of the team who had become accustomed to walking on water.

England are not in the habit of thinking the unthinkable, so the prospect of defeat by Wales in Cardiff on Saturday is forbidden from gate-crashing their party. Nevertheless, when they cross the Severn they will not do so with the air of the team who had become accustomed to walking on water.

The world champions have shown signs of developing feet of clay. A couple of seasons ago they went to the Millennium Stadium with a reserve side and scored five tries to nil in a 43-9 victory. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then.

England have not only lost Clive "Winning!" Woodward but two of his captains in Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, and then there's the raft of injuries that has left them exposed at centre and in the back row. They are fortunate to have as gifted a stand-off as Charlie Hodgson to run the show in the absence of their captain and match-winner Jonny Wilkinson. Jason Robinson carries on as skipper, but more surprising is the touted promotion of Mathew Tait, Wilkinson's 18-year-old Newcastle team-mate, and another Tynesider, Jamie Noon - so long as he recovers from the dead leg he sustained on Friday night.

Wilkinson says that when he returns he would be happy to play under Jason Robinson, but as he expects to be out for between six and eight weeks, it may not be in the Six Nations. "When I come back whatever I do will have to be earned," Wilkinson said.

Post World Cup, England's halo has all the substance of a smoke ring. Their latest loss, to Australia at Twickenham in the autumn, was a disjointed affair which ended with England fielding two scrum-halves and not a recognised goal-kicker in sight.

Andy Robinson, Woodward's successor, will not make the same mistakes again, but he could have done with a less turbulent start to his maiden voyage in the Six Nations. He has inherited a side who are neither one thing nor the other; they are not finished, in several senses of the word.

The same could be said of Wales, although their coach, Mike Ruddock, apart from the odd thumping in South Africa, seems to have found the sweet spot. "He's got the dog back in them," Brian O'Driscoll said. "What's happened to Wales is refreshing."

Their autumn programme was arguably more instructive than England's. Wales looked as if they were going to be eaten alive by South Africa in Cardiff, but their grandstand finish showed three things: Ruddock has turned a lightweight pack into a force that refuses to buckle; the team's fitness has come on in leaps and bounds; and Gavin Henson is a centre who can win matches.

Wales were even better against New Zealand in another extravaganza. The form meant something when the All Blacks went on to bury France.

Under the captaincy of Gareth Thomas, Wales have been playing an expansive game, laced with plenty of pace, and it includes every member of the pack. It's a style that has been popular at the box office, but it has not yet brought Wales the success they crave. "We've come 99 per cent of the way. And the hardest part is actually winning," Thomas said. "We've got the perfect squad. We deserve something." Not quite perfect, as Colin Charvis, in the form of his life, and Martyn Williams are both injured.

Wales's resurgence goes back to the World Cup and owes more to serendipity than anything else. In their match against New Zealand in Sydney, Wales, who had already qualified for the quarter-finals, fielded what was supposed to be a shadow XV. They went behind almost immediately, and in the process lost their full-back, Garan Evans. He was replaced by Thomas, who from that moment was converted from the wing to full-back. Wales scored 24 points in a 12-minute spell and were leading going into the final quarter before the All Blacks pulled clear in a 90-point classic.

Wales scored four tries that day and went on to outscore England three tries to one in Brisbane before Wilkinson (his extraordinary workload was only eased by the introduction of Mike Catt) wore them down with 23 points. If England were vulnerable then, they are less secure now.

A few hours before Wales-England, France play Scotland in Paris. For a truly vintage championship you need six strong countries. That is not the case. France, the Grand Slam winners last season, have been dominating the Heineken Cup and should be strong again; Scotland were whitewashed last year and are in turmoil, going through the power struggles that threatened the development of the game in England and Wales.

At Murrayfield today the general committee and the executive are due to go head- to-head at a special general meeting. All and sundry will assemble to discuss a strategic review, the architects of which have left the Scottish Rugby Union. It could be the most passionate fight Murray-field has seen in a long time. Whether the players will be in a position to give the French a match remains to be seen.

Ireland, who ended England's unbeaten run at Twickenham, went on to take the Triple Crown. Leinster and Munster are through to the last eight of the Heineken Cup and Ireland, fresh from narrow victories over the Springboks and Argentina, should return from Rome with a victory over Italy on Sunday, although these openers in the Eternal City can be torrid affairs. Anything less would be a disaster for Ireland, whose progress in recent years has made them serious players in the world rankings.

Every coach in the tournament emphasises the importance of a winning start, to settle the nerves and build on the incentives, which this year, for two thirds of the competitors, include a place on the Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer. Wilkinson would not discuss the matter. "It's too far off," he said, sotto voce.

The schedule has not been kind to England, who play the big three in succession followed by Italy and Scotland at Twickenham in March. By then it's possible that the only silverware left to them will be the Calcutta Cup.

Wales have not won the championship since 1994, and in the interim England have sprayed the champagne on five occasions. For Wales, the loss of Charvis is a big blow, and moreover none of their representatives survived beyond the pool stages of the Heineken, in which Llanelli's proud record took a battering, so much so that at the end of the season Phil Davies could be on his way from Leeds to his home club.

Even so, the Red Dragonhood, provided their front five coexist with England's, have an opportunity to rekindle an old flame.

Six Nations predictions

1 Wales
2 Ireland
3 France
4 England
5 Scotland
6 Italy