Though Underwood was right to claim that normally he would have been awarded the try, the truth is that it was not one

Click to follow
By Saturday morning France's price for the Five Nations had shortened to 11-8 on, while Ireland had come in to 12-1, and Wales gone out to 20-1. My normal practice is to back France whatever the odds. In the nine seasons that have passed since this column began, France have won the championship four times and England three times. So the habit is not wholly irrational.

This year I put money on a France-Ireland double for Saturday's matches, and duly lost it. But I have not backed France for the championship. Instead I have (as the bookmakers like to put it) invested in my native land, not out of sentimentality, but because 20-1 seemed to me an attractive price. Nothing I saw on Saturday made me regret my decision. I may feel differently after 3 February, when England play Wales at Twickenham.

On Saturday's evidence, however, Wales, if they pick the right side (an important qualification), are capable of beating any of the other teams. Scotland look like proving the most difficult customers, even though the match is at Cardiff this year. But Cardiff holds no terrors for the Scots.

Nor is there any need for the Welsh team to run on to Twickenham in the hangdog way they did two years ago, when they had lost the match in their minds before it had even started. England are fallible. So also are the French. Indeed, England deserved a draw and could have won.

Rory Underwood was correct in saying he had seen tries awarded for even lighter touches of the ball than the one he managed. Most referees would have awarded the five points. I have attacked the practice many times in this column over the years.

Although Underwood was right to claim that normally he would have been awarded the try, the truth is that it was not one. The referee, David McHugh, made the correct decision. He did not always seem to do this in other areas of play. But my sympathies are with anyone who finds himself in the unfortunate position of having to referee an England-France encounter at the Parc des Princes.

Five years ago Underwood would have scored - at any rate tried to score - himself instead of passing to Mike Catt, as he did shortly afterwards. Nevertheless the wing has come in for some unfair criticism, both for failing to have a go himself and for giving Catt a rotten pass. If he had gone on his own and been stopped, he would have been attacked for selfishness. As for his pass, it is in the nature of the overhead, defender- missing pass to risk ending up at the attacker's toes. It was Catt's job to catch the ball.

Still, I feel sorry for him. All of a sudden, he is having a wretched time. But then, I feel sorry for Paul Hull as well. Now that Paul Grayson is firmly established as England's goal-kicker, there is every reason to give Hull another chance at full-back.

Matt Dawson had an excellent game, and Jon Sleightholme did everything that was asked of him. But again, I feel sorry - this is turning into an untypically sympathetic column - for Damian Hopley. He was dropped because he did not possess the pace of a true international wing. But everyone knew he lacked this quality. He himself did not claim to have it. Why pick him, out of position, in the first place? In his outings before Christmas he did not let England down once and was certainly the most determined of the backs.

In a curious reversal, the trouble now seems to lie with the English forwards. The front row rarely seemed comfortable. Martin Bayfield and Martin Johnson were not the force everyone expected them to be.

There has been a disposition to blame Mark Regan's throwing in for this. The more probable explanation was provided by the outstanding French No 6, Abdel Benazzi. He said that England lacked their strong men, Tim Rodber and Dean Richards.

There was a tremendous cheer when Richards came on as a temporary replacement for Ben Clarke. There was a palpable feeling of disappointment when he went off shortly afterwards. Why not pick him in the first place and either restore Rodber or shift Clarke to No 6?

I have deliberately kept till last my views on the right Welsh side. This is because the squad is being announced today, so whatever I say will be overtaken by the announcement. But I am fairly sure the Welsh coach, Kevin Bowring, will not do what he ought to do, which is to recall Robert Jones at scrum-half and to play Jonathan Davies in the centre, inside or outside, exactly as the great man wishes.