Take France to top Five Nations' table

SPORTS BETTING
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The Independent Online
Betting on rugby's Five Nations' Championship has been underway for several weeks, and as a result the lists from the major bookmakers are strikingly similar, but it is still hard to fathom why, after a series of disappointing performances, the layers appear to rate England's chance of success so highly.

Top-priced at 5-4, and at just 3-1 to complete the Grand Slam, England are firm favourites, yet they have looked anything but the outstanding team in the northern hemisphere in their warm-up matches. At such short odds, they demand to be opposed.

Wales, at 7-1 with the Tote, make some appeal, but at least one slip- up can be expected in their away games at Murrayfield and Parc des Princes, and it is the French who are surely the team to beat. France ran South Africa very close in two recent Tests and the strength of their domestic game has been demonstrated in the European Cup. While 7-4 (William Hill, Ladbrokes) is not a huge price, it is more than fair about a team who perhaps deserve to be favourites.

While England's shortcomings have yet to filter through to the markets, the talents of Tim Henman are now appreciated, and the British No 1 was cut to 20-1 (from 40-1) to win the Australian Open, which started late last night, after his defeat of the world No 3, Goran Ivanisevic, in Sydney on Friday and victory in the ATP tournament final there on Saturday. Once they had studied the draw, however, they pushed him back out to 33-1, and even after the late withdrawal of Mark Philippoussis, his dangerous first-round opponent, Michael Chang, Thomas Enqvist and Michael Stich are possible opponents before even the semi-final stage.

Henman, at last, is an outstanding British talent with the temperament to match, but while a major victory may well lie ahead of him, the first Grand Slam of the season is unlikely to provide it. With a best-price book of barely 100 per cent, however, there is still value to be had, and Boris Becker, who finished 1996 in exceptional form, must stand every chance at the Tote's 9-2. Prices may vary this morning with play due to start last night.

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP (starts Saturday): 5-4 England (C,L), 7-4 France (H,L), 7-1 Wales (T), 8-1 Scotland (L,T), 20-1 Ireland (C,H,L,T). GRAND SLAM: 5-6 no winner (C,T), 3-1 England (L), 7-2 France (C,H,L), 25-1 Wales (L,T), 33-1 Scotland (L,T), 100-1 Ireland (L). TRIPLE CROWN: 5-4 England (L), 5-2 no winner (H,T), 6-1 Wales (L), Scotland (T), 33- 1 Ireland (L).

AUSTRALIAN OPEN TENNIS: 11-8 Sampras (L,T), 9-2 Becker (T), 6-1 Chang (C,L,T), 14-1 Ivanisevic (T), 28-1 Courier, 33-1 Henman (H) Enqvist (L), 40-1 Muster, Ferreira (C), 50-1 others.

l C Coral, H William Hill, L Ladbrokes, T Tote

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