Wales show the way from front to back

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It seemed like a good idea at the time. The pressure on rugby's administrators to embrace Italy and to admit them into the inner sanctum of the Five Nations was irresistible. The competition, which had survived two world wars, the odd indiscretion by France and the intense suspicion with which one union viewed every move made by the other, was deemed to be suffering from fatigue. England and France had enjoyed a monopoly throughout the Nineties, which was in danger of raising a question in the House with seven championship wins in the eight seasons between 1991 and 1998. The famous five were in need of a new playmate, and the Italians looked like a fun bunch of likely lads.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The pressure on rugby's administrators to embrace Italy and to admit them into the inner sanctum of the Five Nations was irresistible. The competition, which had survived two world wars, the odd indiscretion by France and the intense suspicion with which one union viewed every move made by the other, was deemed to be suffering from fatigue. England and France had enjoyed a monopoly throughout the Nineties, which was in danger of raising a question in the House with seven championship wins in the eight seasons between 1991 and 1998. The famous five were in need of a new playmate, and the Italians looked like a fun bunch of likely lads.

How short memories were. Fifteen to 20 years ago the Romanians were a match for any side and were consistently too good for Europe's best. Look at them now. They were nothing more than makeweights in the World Cup although, to be fair, they were a good deal better than Italy.

The hope is that Italy's inclusion in the international championship will fire the public's imagination and will in time create a healthy and prosperous rugby community. The novelty value this season and the appeal of a weekend in Rome should generate a crowd and an atmosphere, but in the longer term the Italians must establish their domestic game on a sound footing, and the only way to do that is by regular contact with the top sides. An invitation to join the French club championship might be the answer. One point from their five matches in this series will, however, be a major achievement.

It was with a deliciously perverse sense of timing that last year's championship, which opened to a fanfare of indifference, should have provided the most stunningly dramatic rugby. From the fastest international try, scored by Scotland's John Leslie against Wales, to Scott Gibbs' injury-time try against England, it was magnificent entertainment. Lawrence Dallaglio's questionable tactical decision in the closing minutes of the last match on the final day installed Scotland as the unlikeliest of champions and restored the clapped-out wreck to its vigorous old self.

Not the least of Scotland's achievements last season was to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of a domestic game in ruins. The two Super sides were fit and willing but had no one and nowhere to play. Even so, they proved the value of genuine comradeship allied to individual skill. If Gregor Townsend, with a try in every match, was the Scots' talisman, it was those around him, notably the new Scottish captain John Leslie, who made him tick. It remains to be seen how quickly Leslie, whose season has been so blighted by injury, can pick up where he left off last season as Townsend's handmaiden. Scott Murray was another vital element in Scotland's success, as was Eric Peters who, alas, will not be packing down at No 8 this season, if ever.

With France and England at home the fixture sequence is in Scotland's favour, their two most recent Grand Slams falling in the even years 1984 and 1990. But no team can fancy a trip to Dublin or Cardiff this year. For the first time in a very long while Welsh ambition can justifiably be pitched at roughly the same height as the expectation of their supporters. Having repaired their shattered spirit, Graham Henry has unobtrusively set about changing attitudes and modernising techniques. He is using a tried and trusted formula. The trial system largely abandoned in this country but still considered so important in New Zealand has been reinstated, the family bonds with older kinsmen, whose experience and knowledge have in the past been neglected, has been re-established.

Cardiff's defeat of Montferrand in the European Cup earlier this month was as remarkable for its style as it was for its size. The confidence of the Welshmen in playing such a high-risk game on a deplorable surface against opponents who were themselves renowned for the quality of their counter-attack was welcome evidence of a return to the old ways, when intuitive skill was as important as brute strength. The players ran into open space rather than the closed shop of the opposition back row. From nowhere, Wales have stumbled on a front row. They have an athletic and mobile back five which might benefit from the presence of Emyr Lewis, such a dynamic force in Cardiff's season so far. Furthermore, Wales are settled at half- back. Rob Howley's poor showing in the World Cup was surely a temporary hitch. He is a class act, and Neil Jenkins has done enough to convince even the most critical of his detractors that between those jug ears lies an astute and agile rugby brain.

France and Ireland, who fought each other to a standstill on the multi-coloured surface of Lansdowne Road last season with only a point separating them at the end, may well be travelling in different directions in this campaign. The question is whether we are to judge France by last season's wretched standards or by the indescribable glory of their World Cup performance against the All Blacks. Somewhere in between seems reasonable. The talent is there although, for as long as he plays, Olivier Magne can never again reach the heights of his tour de force in the semi-final. Neither can Christophe Dominici and from where will Christophe Lamaison find the touch and timing that punctured the All Blacks and so totally deflated them? But even if they go halfway to the summit and can be as ruthlessly unsentimental as their coach when he relieved Raphaël Ibañez of the captaincy, they will be looking down at the rest.

For once in a long while England may not be the side to beat for those who aspire to the championship title. Bedevilled by injury, worn out by a ruinous playing schedule and, at domestic level, playing a game still rooted in the past, England face a troublesome campaign. A lack of conviction and an inability to press home their advantage last season almost undid them against Scotland and cost them victory against Wales. They will be without their champion forward Martin Johnson at least for the opening match against Ireland and, no longer the dominant force of old in the tight, they will have to look elsewhere for inspiration. But where?

The polish on the gem that was Jeremy Guscott may have been wearing a bit thin but there was at least some gloss in the midfield. The level of desperation plumbed new depths last week with the suggestion that Austin Healey, a wing-cum-scrum- half, should be selected as England's fly-half. While it is fun to watch Healey's cavalier antics in the position for his club and while Leicester are one of the few English sides attempting to keep up with the fast changing trends in the game, the idea that Healey could play the pivotal role in England's plans is ludicrous.

Clive Woodward, under pressure following England's disappointing World Cup, will do what he can with the experienced campaigners available to him. He will perforce make changes on the wing and at lock but, despite the strong impression that Martin Corry is at present the bestNo 8 in England, Woodward will take no chances. There is no time and even less room for manoeuvre and therein lies England's problem.

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