United Celts could start another uprising

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Despite the spin - top, back and side - and the oceans of cold water being poured on the fires of expectation by England's connections, the Grand Slam, it would seem, is as good as won. In most minds it is all over bar the odd shout or too in Rome and Edinburgh.

Despite the spin - top, back and side - and the oceans of cold water being poured on the fires of expectation by England's connections, the Grand Slam, it would seem, is as good as won. In most minds it is all over bar the odd shout or too in Rome and Edinburgh.

But beware the slide in March. Remember that 10 years ago England had beaten, with almost contemptuous ease, Ireland, Wales and France. They had done so, too, displaying much of the same joyous exhilaration, freedom of expression and sense of adventure with which the present side destroyed Wales at Twickenham last week.

Will Carling's England were, we thought, unsinkable and for the first 40 minutes of that stupendous showdown at Murrayfield, in which Jeremy Guscott scored a quite sumptuous try, they were in full control of their own destiny. What happened in the next 40 minutes, however, not only changed the course of the match and altered the landscape of the 1990 championship, but it shaped England's philosophy and tactical planning for most of the rest of the decade.

So grievously wounded and deeply scarred were they by the defeat they suffered on that day that they abandoned the spirit of free enterprise which had illuminated their play in favour of the narrow pragmatism which brought the reward of three Grand Slams, six Triple Crowns and four championships, but few converts and strictly limited success on the world stage.

I doubt very much, though, that the memories of that fateful day will even register in Clive Woodward's consciousness as he prepares his players for the final two hurdles. For one thing, the Scottish players 10 years ago were of an infinitely higher quality than the present line-up and were themselves standing on the threshold of a Grand Slam, having beaten France, Wales and Ireland. It never crossed their minds that they were in any way inferior to the Auld Enemy, otherwise they would have been much too self-conscious to attempt that dramatically theatrical slow march on to the field.

The England of today have about them the same air of invincibility as their predecessors in 1980 when Bill Beaumont's side, in which Woodward was a key member, won the Grand Slam by butchering the Scots and condemning them to another bout of tortured reappraisal. Plus ça change...

There have been alarming tales of division and acrimony trickling across the border during the past week - rumours of dressing-room spats and the feverous search for scapegoats following Scotland's third successive championship defeat. These are deeply worrying times not only for the Scots but for Celtic rugby as a whole.

There is pressure from all sides, not least in the poaching of one of the game's most prized assets. Football's greatest triumph in recent years has been its reinvention as a game for all classes, covering the A-Z of the socio-economic scale. The ABC1 male, so coveted by advertisers and considered in the winter months to be the exclusive property of rugby union, is more likely to be found nowadays at Ibrox than at Murrayfield.

Scotland's domestic game, deprived of the oxygen of top-quality competition, is coming apart at the seams. It is not much better in Wales, and Ireland, for all their success in wooing their best players back to their native land and their triumphs in the European Cup, remain rooted in the seconddivision of the world rankings.

Meanwhile there are those at Twickenham who continue to cast their eyes longingly southwards. They see England's future not in Europe but as part of a world super elite encompassing New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and France. That would be catastrophic not only for rugby in the northern hemisphere but for the world game. Expansion, not contraction, is the only hope for the future. Which makes tomorrow's summit meeting of the Six Nations in London all the more significant. It is a hugely important gathering in that it could well determine the success or otherwise of rugby in the northern hemisphere for the foreseeable future.

England are determined, and rightly so, to stick with their domestic league. The Allied Dunbar Premiership works, so why on earth would they wish to swap it for a British League? Which leaves the Celts on their own, but as I have been arguing for nigh on two years, a Celtic League, professionally organised and aggressively marketed, has the potential to be at least the equal of the English Premiership in terms of quality and popular appeal.

The plan is for seven Welsh clubs, three Irish provinces and the two Scottish super districts to form a league playing home and away and for all 12 to join forces with their English counterparts in a knock-out competition.

The stumbling block has been the Irish, who are reluctant to break up their inter-provincial championship. But with the prospect of participation in a British Cup as bait, they may decide to take the plunge. The Irish would certainly not wish to be excluded from such a challenging and potentially lucrative cup competition, and the trade-off may be an agreement to sign up to the Celtic League. It is a small price to pay, surely, for helping to secure the game's future in this part of the world.