Wales ruled out of equation by weekend of shame

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The Independent Online

The prices the bookmakers are offering for the Six Nations' Championship are: England 2-1 on, France 11-4, Ireland 9-1, Wales 11-1, Scotland 18-1 and Italy 250-1. The order is exactly what I should have expected. So are the prices, more or less. England are the predictable favourites and, equally predictably, their odds are less than generous. My native land would have been a bargain if it had not been for Wales's Lost Weekend of Rugby Shame, as we old headline writers would have described the two days that have just passed.

The prices the bookmakers are offering for the Six Nations' Championship are: England 2-1 on, France 11-4, Ireland 9-1, Wales 11-1, Scotland 18-1 and Italy 250-1. The order is exactly what I should have expected. So are the prices, more or less. England are the predictable favourites and, equally predictably, their odds are less than generous. My native land would have been a bargain if it had not been for Wales's Lost Weekend of Rugby Shame, as we old headline writers would have described the two days that have just passed.

It is Ireland who now look a bargain. But then, this is traditionally the time of the season - just before the start of the championship - when they are the smart-money bet. They possess, we are commonly told, the best front five, the best back five or even the best pack in the competition. They have a worthy successor to Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward in... fill in blank for the current goalkicker.

By the way, I have nothing against the present incumbent, Ronan O'Gara. But to imply, as some commentators have done, that he has suddenly appeared out of the West to carry the torch is to do an injustice to the goal-kicking abilities both of his rival, David Humphreys - still one of the best kickers in Europe - and of his predecessor Eric Elwood.

Then, the story proceeds, Ireland have some skilful and speedy threequarters. So they have, scattered throughout these islands though they may be. But I have often been puzzled by the selections of Warren Gatland, the country's New Zealander coach. In Rob Henderson, of Wasps, he has at his disposal one of the most solid inside centres in the Premiership who, moreover, possesses genuine penetrative skills. But instead of being a fixture Henderson is in and out of the side.

As for Geordan Murphy, who was (even if a trifle luckily) made man of the match in Leicester's annihilation of Swansea, he cannot even get into the Irish squad. And yet on his present form he is a strong candidate for the Lions party to tour Australia in the summer, whether as a wing or as a full-back.

Besides, Irish provinces usually manage to do well in the Heineken European Cup, as they have this year too, with Munster, last season's losing finalists, in the semi-finals, and Leinster a shade unlucky not to find themselves in the last eight.

But then, in the first match, or maybe the second, the Irish season collapses. On Saturday they face Italy in Rome. Anything can happen. So can it also in Cardiff in the Wales v England match.

This is being talked and written up as a tremendous encounter, with the earth shaking, pride at stake, and so forth. So it may turn out to be. But exactly the same was said and written beforehand of the match between Gloucester and Cardiff. I can understand why television commentators in particular carry on in this way. It is because they want to entice the viewer to press the button without fail. In fact the Kingsholm match was a bad-tempered compendium of ineptitude by both sides. Even if we allow for the beaten pack behind whom they were playing, Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins did not give the performance we were entitled to expect from the current Wales half-backs.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the match was the way in which Trevor Woodman (who clearly ought to be in the England side) manifestly inconvenienced the Wales tight-head, David Young. When Young, who may not have been fully fit, went off to be replaced with the Wales loose-head, Peter Rogers, Spencer John moving to the other side of the front row, matters did not improve noticeably.

At Leicester, Ben Evans and Darren Morris had a slightly happier time, though Evans was replaced in the second half. It must still be worrying for Graham Henry, the Wales coach, to find out at this stage that one area he thought he had sorted out, the front row, is now showing signs of creaking.

Despite the disastrous end for the Welsh clubs in the Heineken Cup, it nevertheless showed that, at last, there were some fast wings about the place in Mark Jones, Matthew Robinson and Nick Walne. I should choose a threequarter line of Walne, Dafydd James, Scott Gibbs and Jones. I do not suppose Henry will do anything of the kind. Instead he will go for the trusted and the tried.

Alas, Scott Quinnell and perhaps also Gibbs apart, those coming within this category did not have the most successful of Cup runs. One of the objects at the Millennium Stadium will be to demonstrate that the Cup has proved a false guide to Welsh rugby. I hope it does. But I shall be keeping my money in my wallet rather than giving it to the bookies.

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