The French gave us the most to admire this season, the Welsh were not far behind but can Fran Cotton please be quiet?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The first season of professional rugby union has been full of interest. The consequences have not all been benign. On the whole, money has done the talking. Who would have thought, a few seasons ago, that Saracens would be riding high, and Llanelli struggling - even if the last few games played by both clubs suggest that, though money may be useful, it cannot buy everything? Here, anyway, are a few awards:

Club of the season: There is no question at all in my mind. It is Brive. The full name of the town is Brive-le-Gaillard, or Brive-the-Gallant, a title fully justified. Some of the English reports have suggested that it is a one-horse sort of place, well off the beaten track. Not so. It is on the main line from Paris to Toulouse, and even the fast trains stop there. Leicester's disappointing performance in the European Cup final at Cardiff should not, however, lead us to conclude that top French club rugby is superior to the English variety. After all, Toulouse were convincingly defeated in the same competition, first by Wasps and then by Leicester.

The runners-up in this section are Sale, who would be the outright winners if I had not thrown the competition open to European clubs.

Country: France. When the French management team, Jean-Claude Skrela, Pierre Villepreux and Jo Maso, accompanied by the French captain, Abdel Benazzi, entered the Twickenham press conference after their win over England, the French journalists broke into spontaneous applause. This was unprofessional but understandable.

England put up some fine performances in the last quarter but were unable to do so against France. The team that came nearest to beating them in the Five Nations were Wales in Paris.

But the runner-up award goes not to England or Wales but to Italy, who beat France at Grenoble and did enough in the rest of their matches to earn admission to a new Six Nations' Championship.

Player: Christian Lamaison, of Brive and France, who kicked all his goals and did not miss any tries. I did not approve of his charge on Craig Chalmers but witnessed many worse episodes during the season.

Runner-up: Allan Bateman, of Richmond and Wales, who looked dangerous whenever he had the ball in his hands and often, owing to his uncanny positional sense, when he did not. I am not including Gary Connolly, of Harlequins, because he did not play a full season, returning to Wigan in the new year. Otherwise he would be contesting Bateman's award.

Most promising newcomer: A good selection, with Denis Hickie and Eric Miller from Ireland, Austin Healey and Richard Hill from England, and Tom Smith from Scotland. Four of these are off to South Africa with the Lions. But I am choosing someone who was not chosen for the trip and, because of injury, did not manage a full season for his country: Colin Charvis, of Wales. It is not altogether fanciful to think that, if both Charvis and Bateman had been available throughout the season, Wales would have won two or three of their matches rather than the one they managed.

Least defensible decision: Jack Rowell's, to leave Jeremy Guscott on the substitutes' bench throughout the Five Nations. Whenever he came on he lit up the game. Once Phil de Glanville had been chosen as Will Carling's successor, a controversial though defensible decision, the logical solution was to play him and Guscott in their normal club positions, rather than to force Carling into the side in an unfamiliar position.

Loudmouth: Fran Cotton.

Most worrying development: The penalty try, closely followed by the dangerous tackle.

Greatest loss: Clem Thomas, who died of a heart attack in September 1996. Clem was as fearless a journalist as he had been a flanker. His finest hour as a journalist was, I thought, when he denounced the management of the 1977 Lions in New Zealand, telling the truth but risking several friendships. He would have been encouraged by Wales' performance and delighted by France's.

Possibly he was held in higher regard in that country, where he had a small house in the Medoc, than he was in his own native land. We drank many a bottle of the wine of that region on May expeditions to watch the semi-finals of the French cup. He was a marvellous companion and a good friend.

Comments