The last weekend in rugby union's Six Nations' Championship will see three happy sides and three whose mental state varies between disappointment and despondency. I refer respectively to England, Ireland and Italy, who would be described in House of Lords voting as contents, and France, Scotland and Wales, the non-contents.
By next Sunday evening (the Scotland v England match is a Sunday fixture), these current states of mind may have altered. If Scotland defeat England and Ireland beat Wales by enormous margins, Ireland will end up as champions. The streets of Dublin will be awash with the black stuff. But Ireland will be happy with any kind of win over Wales. Similarly, Scotland will regard even one point above England's score as a famous victory.
Wales will come away from Lansdowne Road feeling that their season has not been entirely wasted if they manage to do the same with Ireland; for, curiously, their win over Scotland did not mend many broken hearts. France, I am afraid, are inconsolable for the moment, however many points they put up against Italy. And Italy can take credit for having beaten Scotland, discomposed England for part of the Rome game and, generally, been a good competitor in their first championship season.
Having tipped France to win the competition, I am not going to make any predictions for the weekend. After the England match, I thought the French could and should have won if their captain, Fabien Pelous, had not taken some misguided - that is the politest way of putting it - decisions in the last five minutes. After the Ireland match, however, I thought they had been beaten fair and square. The complaint of the French coach, Bernard Laporte - that he had been unable to pick the side he wanted because of injury - may have been justified. But there is a time and a place for grumbling. In the circumstances, Laporte may have been better advised to preserve a period of silence.
For one thing, the French have always possessed strength in depth, particularly among the backs; the Irish have rarely enjoyed such a luxury anywhere, except sometimes in the front row. Oddly enough, they now have three Lions-class centres in Rob Henderson, Kevin Maggs (judged by his Bath form) and Brian O'Driscoll. This enables the coach, Warren Gatland, to play Maggs on the wing. For another thing, it is not only the French who suffer from the injuries which result from too much overviolent rugby. Wales will be taking the field against Ireland without, it seems, Matt Cardey at full-back, or the Quinnell brothers among the forwards who, even if they were selected, would not be fit enough to play.
If the French are disappointed, the Welsh are despondent. It is partly a matter of national temperament. The French have sunshine, red wine and fresh orange juice: the Welsh have rain, warm bitter, water and the Word. Is it any wonder that the French are the more optimistic people?
They are also fairly conceited, in the nicest possible way. In vain do you tell them that Trinity College, Cambridge, has produced more Nobel prize winners than the whole of France. Likewise in rugby; if a few players and administrators, clear enemies of the people, are sent to the guillotine or strung up on the lamp-posts next season, they can take on the world just like the armies of Napoleon.
We Welsh are not like that. We have a feeling of persecution. And who is to say that we are not justified? We may indeed be persecuted. In the comment on the row about the grandparents of Brett Sinkinson and Shane Howarth, there was a distinct undertone of: "Typical Welsh, cheating again."
And yet, in my considered, unbiased opinion, Dennis Gethin, the secretary of the Welsh Rugby Union, has behaved impeccably. At no stage did he make any attempt to brazen matters out. He said that the cases of Sinkinson and Howarth would be fully investigated and that, in the meantime, they would not be considered for selection. It has since become clear that, while Cardey is indeed granny-qualified, Sinkinson and Howarth are not. Be it so, as barristers say in court.
Compare and contrast Gethin's rational approach with that of Bill Watson, the chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, toward David Hilton, after it had been discovered that Hilton's grandfather did not come from Edinburgh, as had originally been claimed, but from Bristol. Watson said of him: "His commitment to Scotland is beyond reproach. We are informing the IRB [International Rugby Board] that, under all the circumstances, we consider he continues to remain available for selection for Scotland."
This was simple cheek. The SRU has now, it appears, changed tack. But then, Scotland have long chosen players whose connection with that country was restricted to the consumption of a tin of Highland shortbread biscuits. England have cast the net pretty wide as well, choosing an Argentinian in Barry Holmes of Cambridge University and yet another South African in Noel Estcourt of the same university, who, however, played his rugby for Blackheath. Until recent events supervened the Welsh have, by comparison, been as pure as a mountain stream.Reuse content