For King and country

Gloucester emerged as the big winners of the top of the Guinness Premiership clash with London Irish at their Kingsholm home ground.

The visiting Exiles had at one point enjoyed an 18-3 lead before imploding to go down 23-21 to a late Iain Balshaw try. Sale moved up into clear third place after Dwayne Peel inspired his team to a 37-20 victory at Worcester, three points now only separating the leading trio. Elsewhere Harlequins shrugged off the loss of Ugo Monye, Danny Care and Nick Easter to roll over Northampton 27-6.

On the international scene England’s B team, the Saxons, destroyed Portugal 66-0 in Stockport, many players stating their case for inclusion in their country’s Six Nations squad in the process.

The unofficial European championships kick off tomorrow (Saturday) with the 3pm opening fixture between England and Italy at Twickenham, with further matches between Ireland and France at 5pm and Scotland and Wales on Sunday. Of the six national coaches, Wales’s Warren Gatland is the most bullish regarding his team’s chances: “We are not going to hide from our tag as favourites”, he said. “I think we will win the Six Nations.”

His Irish counterpart Declan Kidney is more cautious: “Our young players have invigorated everybody in the squad- but we are only thinking about beating France in our first game. The reality is they have 14 professional teams, while we have four.”

Even less confidence emanates from England’s Martin Johnson: “We know we need to improve. We are all excited, but there is a lot of anxiety as well. My objective is for us to get near our potential. We can be a much better side than we have shown.”

While Frank Haddon pins his hopes of a successful Scottish campaign on goal-kicker Chris Paterson together with home advantage for three of his matches, Italy’s Nick Mallet is relying on his team’s underdog status to cause a few upsets. The same cannot be said for France, Marc Lievremont stating his belief that the Ireland game could define his team’s championship. “If we start well we could win it”, he said.

All matches will be shown live either on BBC1 or BBC2 over the coming six weeks.