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Pretty fly

Finesse and flair could well triumph over brawn and grit when England and Wales face rugby’s southern-hemisphere titans this month

November 09 2012
Jamie Reid

Rugby takes centre stage in Britain this weekend as the Autumn Internationals kick off across the country. Tomorrow afternoon England face Fiji at Twickenham and it would be unwise to underestimate the notoriously combative South Sea Islanders. But the opening game is essentially the hors d’oeuvre, with clashes against the southern-hemisphere titans Australia, South Africa and New Zealand following on successive Saturdays.

The All Blacks are in Edinburgh on Sunday to play Scotland at Murrayfield and on November 24, a week before they face England, they take on Wales in Cardiff in what should be an occasion of bloodcurdling passion and intensity.

Welsh crowds value winning with style above just winning ugly, but there is now also a tangible yearning among Twickenham’s more conservative spectators for flair and adventure to be given its head and not be stifled by journeyman qualities. England’s former coach, Martin Johnson, whose tenure ended after last September’s inglorious World Cup campaign, seemed hostile to any kind of free expression. Brawn and grit were what he prized, and those who didn’t fit that template were ruled out. His successor, Stuart Lancaster, has gone some way to tempering this unimaginative approach. But, with Jonny Wilkinson’s retirement from the international arena, fans are asking why English rugby has to be dominated by stereotypical hulks.

The most exciting decision that Lancaster could make this weekend would be to throw the fly half’s jersey to Danny Cipriani. When the 25-year-old made his impressive England debut in 2008, he seemed to be Wilkinson’s natural successor. But bad luck with injuries stalled his progress, while some took against him because of his good looks and his relationship with the model Kelly Brook. There was also a minor nightclub incident but Cipriani, now back playing in England after a spell Down Under, remains an exhilarating talent with the capacity to wow the crowds if given the chance.

It’s a similar scenario with that controversial Fancy Dan Gavin Henson, who is playing for London Welsh this season after troubled spells with Ospreys, Toulon and Cardiff. The silver-heeled Henson, outstanding in the Welsh Six Nations Grand Slam-winning sides of 2005 and 2008, became famous for his relationship with the singer Charlotte Church, and for his appearances on reality TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing on BBC One and The Bachelor, a Channel 5 series in which 25 women competed to be his girlfriend. The Wales star has attracted much bad publicity over the years but, like Cipriani, has match-winning potential. Rugby may be a team sport, but it’s one that needs a few mavericks, and the events of the next month, not to mention the 2013 Six Nations, will be a lot more fun if the supposed dilettantes are allowed to take part.

Looking ahead to the Six Nations, Wales – an 8-1 winning tip for last season’s tournament – head the market at 2-1, with England and France next best. But for a value bet I suggest backing Scotland, who have three away games, to finish bottom of the table at 3-1 with Victor Chandler.

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Rugby