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Rugby Union: Six Nations Championship - Real rugby; Will Italy be the whipping boys again this season and can England avoid another banana skin thrown into the Championship by the Celtic cousins? Rugby Correspondent Michael Blair relishes the fray.

Byline: Michael Blair

There are now three international seasons per non-World Cup year: the codged up charity matches that take place in Europe in the autumn, the moneygrabbers' plate in the southern hemisphere in the summer and the real thing.

Which is the Six Nations Championship, starting off in Edinburgh and Paris this afternoon.

International rugby has become a stew and it is not to the taste of those who lament the fact that, in the modern game, tradition dies easy. The Cook Cup? We'll have the Bottlewashers' Cup next.

Even the Six Nations is not without taint.

The competition has always carried a lame duck but ingloriousness did not permanently attach because it was shared. Everybody had a turn for the wooden spoon.

But for Italy ignominy is constant. They tend to irritate Scotland occasionally but they are beaten with such regularity that, frankly, they demean the old Championship and cause the cynics to wonder thus: Were they allowed in to give the other five countries an extra gate?

Perhaps, in their third season, they can do a little more than provide their opponents with an automatic W. Let's hope so, for the sake of the tournament, but they kick-off in France today and the French, so the whispers go, are going to be a force this season.

They've got so much to get off their backs, for a start. They've lost at home twice in a row to Wales since they moved in at Stade de France and that's compelling evidence of being in serious decline.

But there's only one real form line in the Championship these days. How you get on against England. And to move the question along, who is going to beat England now?

I make this year No 14 since the great English renaissance, if that's the right word. It means a return to a former eminence and before the winter of 1988, while they could claim their share of good seasons, they knew no lasting superiority.

But they know it now. As they play more rugby than any other country bar, perhaps, South Africa, it follows that they must have moreclass players coming through and today, which was not the case yesterday, they can identify them all. They then have an unrivalled infrastructure for turning them into powerful international teams.

Professionalism is universal but only England, in this hemisphere, apply the marks of it with total thoroughness.

So it follows that they are red hot favourites to win at Murrayfield this afternoon. It took them a long time but they've cracked the secret of beating Wales and they have the Welsh and the Irish to play at home. Another English cakewalk? It's worth a decent investment.

As it was last year, the year before and the year before that. The Celtic nations are perceived as forming a second division of the Six Nations but for the last three years in a row each of them, in turn, has fired a telling torpedo.

England tend to shrug this off, but losing Grand Slams with the frequency that they do must leave a scar, in the pocket if not in the heart. Hitherto, those ruinous defeats have come in the last match; they start the campaign fearsomely but go out with a whimper.

As today is the first match that makes it ominous for the Scots. What other signs are there to read? Let's try the European Cup.

Scotland scarcely show but Ireland are hot on it. If their performance at provincial level is mirrored in the internationals, then they'll start by beating Wales at Lansdowne Road tomorrow. England's banner is carried by Leicester and as they're probably favourites to win the Cup, need any more be said?

But what's this? Wales have got a demonstrably determined representative (at last) and they have perked up not just the Cup but, possibly, the Six Nations. What messages are Llanelli sending out?

They have just beaten Leicester and Bath with some emphasis. Didn't score a try against either, mind, but their play in both matches gave a strong hint that in Wales there is a re-appreciation of an ancient truism: that you cannot win anything without competitive forwards.

The Scarlets surprised Leicester by attacking their strength, Martin Johnson and his boys. They did the same against the Bath pack and so concentrated was their forward effort that they forced the penalties that won the day.

Sixteen penalties and a dropped goal was Stephen Jones's record in those two games. And unless there's a late change of mind, he won't be first choice kicker in Dublin.

Leinster and Munster and Llanelli, unless they are flattering themselves, are telling us that, gradually, there might be a levelling off of standards in Europe this season.

It's going to be a terrific Six Nations if Scotland can win today and, who knows, Italy might feature.

'Our target is to win a couple of matches,' said their coach, Brad Johnstone. 'I think that we have the opportunity to do that considering that we have to play Scotland at home.'

Now the Scots might not be too amused by that observation but it is worth remembering that Italy have beaten Scotland once. In the same season that Scotland beat England.

Christian Stoica will be hoping to turn the tide for italy this season while Fabien Galthie, left, is part of a French team showing much improved form

CAPTION(S):

The power and the glory of the Six Nations championship is captured by, from left, Will Greenwood of England, Chris Wyatt of Wales being tackled by Ireland's Eric Millar, and Alan Tait and Stuart Grimes, of Scotland; Montage/ DEAN PEACH
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 2, 2002
Words:946
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