The match of the round in the Six Nations this weekend may be Wales’s visit to Twickenham, but arguably more significant for the tournament itself is the meeting between Scotland and France at Murrayfield on Sunday.
The Six Nations has turned into a two-tone tournament. Since the 2007 World Cup, the title has been won by Wales, Ireland, France and England. The wooden spoon has been the preserve of Italy, who are in Dublin on Saturday looking for a first victory over Ireland in the championship, while Scotland have been stuck in fifth position, usually avoiding finishing bottom through points difference.
Scotland and Italy have the smallest pool of players to choose from domestically in the six nations, each operating two professional sides compared to the four of Wales and Ireland, England’s 12 Premiership clubs and France’s Top 14.
The tournament needs Scotland to beat France, not so much for this year’s event because, unless Twickenham produces a draw, there would only be one undefeated team left, but for its future.
It is 2006 since Scotland, who in the amateur era produced not just title-winning sides but often contributed pivotal players to Lions’ squads, won more than one match in a Six Nations campaign. In their last 11 games against the old Five Nations sides in tournament games at Murrayfield, they have scored just one try, Max Evans’s at the end of a 2009 defeat to Wales.
They have beaten Australia and South Africa at Murrayfield in that time, one-off successes built on grit and defiance, but they have lacked the quality to sustain them through a five-match campaign and another defeat on Sunday would make their coach, Andy Robinson, vulnerable, even if he has a contract that runs to the 2015 World Cup and he has made a difference since being appointed in the summer of 2008.
Scottish rugby is in a depressed financial state. The country’s two professional sides, Edinburgh and Glasgow, have been no more successful than the national side, although Edinburgh have qualified for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for only the second time, twice more than Glasgow.
Football in the country is also suffering with Rangers going into administration this month after piling up debts of £50m, a club with an average attendance of 50,000, a figure it would take Glasgow and Edinburgh more than a month to reach between them.
Finance is also a worry for Wales whose four regions are cutting salaries by 20 per cent this summer, prompting an exodus of players this summer. The Wales prop Gethin Jenkins is off to Toulon, and he is likely to be joined in France by hooker Huw Bennett and second row Luke Charteris, joining James Hook, Mike Phillips and Lee Byrne in the Top 14.
English clubs have this week signed players from Scarlets and Ospreys and there is concern in Wales that the current level of income and funding is not enough to sustain four professional sides, all of which operate along the M4 corridor.
It will provide an interesting backdrop to next month’s meeting of the International Rugby Board’s rugby committee which will revisit the issue of World Cup funding. When New Zealand last October argued that major unions were suffering too great a drop in income during a World Cup year to justify taking part in the tournament, Wales were among the unions who took issue.
The landscape has changed since and the Welsh Rugby Union faces losing a number of its leading players to sides in France and England, undermining its coach Warren Gatland’s attempt to create a club atmosphere in the national side. Central contracts are one potential solution, but it is an option the WRU cannot yet afford.
There were fears 10 years ago that the Six Nations would be dominated by England and France with the Celtic unions and Italy marginalised. Ireland and Wales have averted that, but for how much longer? They need Scotland to start sending a few more home to think again.