The French will not take easily to rugby's new free market and the English Channel will prove more impassable than the Irish Sea

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At the beginning of the Five Nations' Championship, I invested (as the bookmakers like to put it) pounds 100 on France to win the competition at 15-8. England were odds-on favourites. After an hour at Twickenham on Saturday, with England up by 20 points to six, I was saying goodbye to my money and thinking the bookmakers were not such fools after all.

But then, I told myself, I was the victim of bad luck - or, rather, of the French team's bad luck. How could I be expected to know that Emil Ntmack, Thomas Castaignede, Philippe Saint Andre, Olivier Roumat and Philippe Benetton, to name but a few, would all be unavailable for one reason or another? As things turned out, their absence (with the possible exception of Roumat's) did not make much difference. Indeed, some of them may find it difficult to effect re-entry into the French side.

Presumably the ideal centre pairing is now Castaignede and Christophe Lamaison. The new wings, David Venditti and Laurent Leflamand, did everything that was asked of them. In fact, Leflamand did a little more by stealing the ball from Tony Underwood, who combines the blessing of great speed with the curse of bad luck.

Castaignede is reportedly off to Newcastle, meanwhile continuing his engineering course at Durham University. Whether France will continue to pick him in these circumstances remains to be seen. Jean-Claude Skrela, the French coach, was asked this question in general terms at the post- match press conference. What would be the French attitude towards players coming over to perform regularly in the Courage Leagues? He seemed slightly embarrassed and answered that they would meet that problem when they came to it.

But the problem is already there, though only in a small way as yet. Philippe Sella of Saracens has retired from international rugby. Laurent Benezech, Laurent Cabannes and Thierry Lacroix, all of Harlequins, have not retired, as I understand the position. Admittedly the first two are in the evening of their careers, but Lacroix is in mid-afternoon.

The Scots have always been at ease with English-based players. The Irish are becoming more so. Indeed, their indigenous players have been crossing the Irish Sea with the ease and rapidity of the old Celtic saints. "Bishop" Brian Ashton holds the position in rugby formerly occupied by Saint Jack Charlton in football. The English used shamelessly to pick South Africans who happened to be at Oxford University for a couple of years, but have now relinquished the practice. The Welsh, traditionally the most nationalistic country in the British Isles when it came to rugby, now pick three players from Richmond in Allan Bateman, Scott Quinnell and Craig Quinnell, and have chosen Nathan Thomas of Bath as a substitute.

The French may in time have to become more broad-minded, because there is more money floating around in south-east England than in south-west France. There is certainly more money in south-east England than in south- west Wales. Thus Saracens seem able to shop for players until they drop, while a great club such as Llanelli have to claim supplementary benefit.

The French are the most chauvinistic of nations, even more so than the Welsh. They rarely venture even on holiday outside their native land, and why should they? My guess is that they will not take easily to the new rugby free market, and that the English Channel will prove more impassable than the Irish Sea.

At the moment, however, they do not have to worry very much. Saturday demonstrated their reserve talent. They clearly do not have to worry any longer about an outside-half. Having won the first of his 27 caps in 1992, Alain Penaud of Brive is still only 24. His large number of appearances is misleading, for he has been unaccountably dropped several times in favour of inferior performers, notably the eccentric Christophe Deylaud of Toulouse.

Moreover, France now seem to have at last a top-class management in Skrela, Pierre Villepreux and Jo Maso. They were all great players as well. Now, great players do not always make great coaches or great managers. Sometimes they are no longer much interested in the sport which gave them their early fame. Formerly great batsmen usually prefer a day at the races or a round of golf to an afternoon at Lord's, and who shall blame them? Skrela, Villepreux and Maso are not like this where rugby is concerned.

It is a joy to see Villepreux at last honoured in his own country. And if France beat Scotland, he will have made me pounds 287.50 better off...

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