The question is whether Thomas's confidence is better served by pitchin g him in again against France or by giving him a rest

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The Independent Online
Though Wales lost to Ireland, and England ground out the win against Scotland which I reluctantly predicted last week, the Five Nations' championship remains the greatest sporting competition in the world.

It would have been pleasantly romantic if Scotland could have won the Triple Crown and the Grand Slam. They would have done too, I think, if Gregor Townsend had simply carried on running - rather as Andy Hancock did for England when they narrowly beat Scotland at Twickenham in 1965.

Townsend's mistake was to look for support, which enabled Rory Underwood to make the semi-tackle that deprived him of a try. Actually the Hancock comparison is not exact. The England wing was looking for support all the time. But none came. So he simply ploughed on at what (through the mists of memory) seemed a rather slower pace than Townsend displayed on Saturday.

It would also have helped if Michael Dods had been in better touch with the ball. To which one has to add, in fairness to England, that Paul Grayson would have had to be in worse touch simultaneously, striking the ball as uncertainly as he did against Wales.

If Dods had kicked all six penalties instead of three, Scotland would have ended up with 18 points - enough for a draw. But if Grayson had kicked all his nine attempts rather than six, England would have finished with 27 and so still have won the match.

As it is, however, the final matches to be played on 16 March are of the greatest interest. England can still win the Triple Crown and the championship. But Scotland and France can each win the championship as well.

If Ireland defeat England and Wales France, Scotland, with six points, become the outright champions. If, however, England, France or both win, the competition (under the admirable new rule introduced in 1993) will be decided on points difference.

Scotland have a points difference of only four, England of 12 and France, owing largely to their win over Ireland, of 33. Accordingly, if England, France or both win, Scotland are out of contention. France could beat Wales by one point. In those circumstances, England would have to put a margin of at least 23 points between themselves and the Irish. If France beat Wales by a greater margin than one, England would have correspondingly more to do.

At the start of the season I nominated France as the best investment (as the bookies like to call it), with Ireland as the most attractive "fun" bet. Well, this second recommendation does not look so clever today, even though the Irish seem to have put up an old-fashioned spirited performance against Wales. But I must confess to a feeling of self-satisfaction, smugness even, over those correspondents (all of them, as a matter of fact, English) who have written to reprehend me for preferring France to Scotland.

As I say, Scotland can still do it if both England and France go down on Saturday week. I hope they do. It would provide an impossibly romantic end to the season. Scotland, who surprised everybody, would have won the championship despite their defeat by England; while the two underdogs would have ended their season to tunes of glory. Yet Wales have been successful in only one of their last seven encounters with France in Cardiff, in 1994. In the 1970s and until 1982, they used to win regularly (with the 1974 match drawn). But that was another time.

I would bring back Mike Rayer at full-back and play Neil Jenkins either at inside-centre or at outside-half. Before the Irish match (of which I have seen only television excerpts) I should have retained Thomas. The poor boy should not now be punished for having a bad game. The question is whether his confidence is better served by pitching him in again against France or by giving him a rest until next season. Wales also need a new loose-head prop instead of Andrew Lewis, who has never appeared comfortable; while Emyr Lewis, alas, is not the force he was.

At the beginning I said that the Five Nations' championship was still the greatest competition in the world. I hope the relatively poor showing of Wales and Ireland this season is not going to lead to more calls for a split table, with Italy and possibly Romania also entering a Second Division. I would much rather have a comprehensive European Championship, even if this meant - as it would - that more matches had to be played.

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