State of the Five Nations: Guide to form over the past 12 months and prospects for this year's championship

Click to follow
The Independent Online
England

Jack Rowell (manager)

won their third Grand Slam in five seasons without ever looking entirely convincing. Highlight was a resounding victory over a French team inhibited by pre-match talk of indiscipline and foul play. The decisive encounter against Scotland was a disappointing spectacle settled by kicks.

's limitations were exposed in South Africa. After narrow wins against Argentina and Italy and a more emphatic victory over Western Samoa, the quarter final thriller against Australia was settled by Andrew's late drop goal. Then came the anti-climax of the semi-final thrashing by New Zealand and third place loss to France.

The 1995-96 season has not started well for with two dismal performances at Twickenham against South Africa and Western Samoa. Many of the old guard - Andrew, Moore and Richards - have gone, but their replacements are taking some time to establish themselves.

Signs that will drop their lofty plans to play a running game and concentrate on creating opportunities through their tight forwards. Martin Johnson is one of the few players at the peak of his powers and with Martin Bayfield should combine to produce important possession from the line-out. This could be 's least successful season since the start of the decade.

France

Andre Herrero

France had a poor championship by their high standards and had little inventiveness once steamrollered by 's back row of Clarke, Rodber and Richards. A fortnight later the unthinkable happened and they lost to Scotland in Paris for the first time in 26 years, caught out in the dying minutes as Gavin Hastings broke their cover to score a famous try.

A qualified success, but they needed Emile Ntamack's injury-time try to beat Scotland and earn a quarter-final meeting with Ireland, which they won comfortably. Narrow semi-final defeat by South Africa was followed by their first win over in nine games to clinch third place.

The two Tests against New Zealand in November, one a win in Toulouse, the other a hammering in Paris, underlined the need for greater consistency. Saturday's game with is likely to decide the title, though No 8 Philippe Benetton, who is injured, will be sorely missed.

France are justifiably more bullish about their prospects this year. They possess the most enterprising back line in world rugby, led by the sublime Emile Ntamack. The pack has been strengthened by the return of Olivier Roumat and Laurent Cabannes while Abdel Benazzi was one of the outstanding forwards in the World Cup. Temperament again a factor given the volatility of a number of players. Clear favourites to win tournament.

Ireland

Murray Kidd

A 16-12 victory over Wales in Cardiff on the final Saturday of the 1995 Championship salvaged some respectability for Ireland from a disappointing campaign and consigned the Welsh to the wooden spoon. The three defeats by , Scotland and France were all relatively heavy and emphasised that there was a shortage of forward power and goal-kicking accuracy.

Defeat with honour by the rampaging All Blacks in the opening game, in which the Irish scored three tries, was followed by victories over Japan and Wales (the latter by just one point). But the intensity of that contest drained them of their competitiveness and left them strangely muted in their quarter-final against France.

Kidd, a New Zealander, has taken over as Ireland's coach, and his first match saw the impressive 44-8 victory over Fiji, who the previous Saturday had run Wales embarrassingly close. But the narrow margin of last weekend's win over the United States will not have boosted his side's confidence.

Changes both on and off the field give reason for some optimism. The appointment of Pat Whelan as manager and Kidd as coach have brought a change in attitude. They have built a useful looking pack but have been defensively vulnerable behind the scrum, although in both defence and attack Jonathan Bell's strength and pace will be a big asset. Should win both home matches.

Scotland

Jim Telfer (manager)

Against all odds, Scotland won their first three matches to set up a Grand Slam decider with at Twickenham. That match never lived up to its billing and after 's conclusive win, Brian Moore accused the Scots of adopting spoiling tactics. The highlight of their season was the Gavin Hastings-inspired victory over France (their first win in Paris for 26 years).

Scotland's World Cup hopes effectively ended when Emile Ntamack scored a brilliant injury-time try to turn a seemingly certain French loss in Pool D into an unlikely victory. Defeat meant the Scots had to play New Zealand in the quarter-finals, but they had no answer to Jonah Lomu and were flattered by the 48-30 scoreline.

Scotland's build-up to the championship has hardly been auspicious. They struggled to draw 15-15 with Western Samoa at Murrayfield in November and suffered further embarrassment last weekend when a strong A team lost heavily in Italy.

Will be many people's favourites to take the wooden spoon but are just as likely to confound any such predictions. Produced some stirring rugby and scored the try of last season, against Wales, in addition to reversing a 26-year sequence of defeats in Paris. But losing Gavin Hastings and Kenny Milne means the Scots have been grievously weakened, and they will do well to win a game.

Wales

Kevin Bowring

In one season Wales went from winning the championship to the wooden spoon, and they were whitewashed for good measure. Defeats by , France and Scotland were all heavy, but failing to beat Ireland in Cardiff was the last straw. Soon afterwards the entire coaching team, headed by Bob Norster, resigned and Ieuan Evans was stripped of captaincy.

The World Cup was no more successful under the Australian coach Alex Evans and new captain Mike Hall, both of Cardiff. Defeat by New Zealand was no disgrace but losing to Ireland meant an early exit.

Another struggle in prospect despite the arrival of a new coach in place of Evans. Defeat by South Africa in Johannesburg and a narrow home win over Fiji do not bode well and there is also a fitness doubt about their fly-half and point-scorer-in-chief, Neil Jenkins.

Embarking on a rebuilding programme under their new coach Kevin Bowring. The burden of expectation will be lifted from them, which should provide the youngsters like Leigh Daviesand Arwel Thomas the opportunity to settle. Should do well at line-out and are defensively sound. Creating opportunities is likely to be a problem and Wales will again rely on the scoring power of Neil Jenkins. Main hope of avoiding wooden spoon is victory over Scots.

Coach

Last year's

tournament

World Cup

Aftermath

Chris Rea's verdict

Comments