Triple Crown no longer the most glittering of prizes

Steve Bale anticipates this weekend's Five Nations' Championship anticlimax
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The Independent Online
Here are a few prosaic thoughts on a championship that has turned prosaic: when England play Ireland and Wales play France in the Five Nations on Saturday, it should be more than a mere conclusion. With France, England and just possibly the non-playing Scots still capable of claiming the silver bauble, it should be an out-and-out, bodice-ripping, gasping-for- breath climax.

Yes! Yes!! Yes? More likely, a bit of a no-no, more Meg Ryan than Sharon Stone, if you get the drift. It is as if the 1996 championship reached its climax a fortnight prematurely when the English stopped the Scots' Grand Slam and gave themselves every chance of the Triple Crown, a piece of headgear England have not won without also doing the Slam since 1960.

Perhaps this explains why we are instead coming to an anticlimax. First, England have grown so used during the Carling years to going for everything the championship has to offer that "only" the Triple Crown has come to appear a poor consolation, not forgetting that an English rampage could gain them the title on points- difference. In previous non-Slam seasons it has been a question of questionable motivation, but at least this is the last time they will have to listen to a Will Carling team-talk.

And second, when the English forwards embraced what seemed like the entire Scottish team in their Murrayfield bearhug, they also squeezed the life out of the pretension that this was a Five Nations that might be remembered with especial affection, a vintage one even. While the Scots were winning - in style - it had looked that way.

It was fun while it lasted, which if we are honest was only as long as Scotland's riot of running against France and the high ambition, although lower attainment, of the Scots' game in Wales that followed. For two sublime periods of 80 minutes, it was possible to imagine European teams actually coming to believe the high-risk approach was the best, because it was also the most likely to win you games. If the winning of friends was a by-product, fine.

Yet now we are left, not withstanding all the talk about the lessons to be learned from the 1995 World Cup, with an average, thoroughly mundane championship of precisely the sort sundry Australians and New Zealanders like to excoriate. Whatever England may do to Ireland or France to Wales - although neither, let's be honest, is guaranteed - it is the teams best equipped to stop the opposition that have finally emerged on top of the pile. Or pile-up.

This applies to France - because they stopped England - no less than to England, who certainly stopped Scotland. And this is not even to complain, since there is not a sport that comes readily to mind in which coaches do not start by seeking to get their team's defences right. You could say this even of the Scots, although their rugby has undeniably metamorphosed from last season's Grand Slam anticlimax (another one) at Twickenham.

Which means maybe the lessons of the World Cup have been learned after all - but they are not quite what most people would have imagined. Although every international coach worth the name has subsequently dwelt on - and tried to emulate - the rugby played in South Africa by New Zealand, it is patently obvious that England beat Scotland by playing the type of rugby which finally gave the All Blacks their comeuppance.

It was played by South Africa and was enough to make them world champions and leave New Zealand as runners-up. But it is interesting, is it not, that the South African provincial sides have been struggling so grievously during the early matches of the new tri-nation Super-12, which is a perfectly timed counterpoint and contrast to the Five Nations. In that series, it is the attack-minded teams who have so far flourished.

So there is, after all, something worth aspiring to in the Five Nations, and no matter how successful England are in realising their aspirations on Saturday its relevance will be only in the most domestic terms. It is the ultimate disappointment of this championship that England have had such good reason to set aside their declared objective of playing something like New Zealand rugby for the legitimate - but oh-so narrow - reason of winning the next match.

If this irks Australians and New Zealanders, so be it, because they simply do not understand the truth that Five Nations rugby has an age-old resonance which makes the trans-Tasman rivalry look like a friendly tiff, and in its introspective way, has no relevance either to World Cups or world rugby.

A glance at the Scotland v England match programme makes the point. However hyperbolic his reminiscences may have been, Gavin Hastings presented a historic context for the Calcutta Cup match which would strike a chord with Scots and even English, but would have left any nomadic Antipodeans in attendance - Ross Cooper, one of the All Blacks' coaches, was one - completely bemused.

"It is history, and it is the culmination of 600 years of cross-border warfare," the former Scotland captain wrote. "We've just traded the sports field for the battlefield." Only 600 years? It is marvellous theatre and it gives us a series of heart-stopping occasions which are enjoyable in much the same frisson-inducing way as horror films. It is even, to use the buzz-word of professional rugby union, entertainment. But all too often it is also a big, big let-down.

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