RUGBY UNION: Tasty Hors D'oeuvres before Main Course ; Sport-by-Sport Guide to 1995: England Awaits the European Football Inva Sion as Rugby Union's World Cup Takes Over

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People have been saying for years, ever since the World Cup's inception in fact, that our dear old Five Nations' Championship is no more than a prelude to the main event. In 1995, this will be the literal truth.

For scarcely will the championship have finished than the five nations, as well as the other nine, will have only South Africa on their minds. In fact you could argue, what with training camps in Besancon for France and Lanzarote for England, that it wa s already there.

If some see this as a devaluation of the Five Nations, others among us would beg to differ. Imperfect as it may be, scornful about it though southern-hemisphere rugby folk can be when not being plain jealous, it has an identity all of its own and even inits newish role as World Cup warm-up is perfect.

And never mind South Africa, the championship that will begin to unfold with England in Ireland and Wales in France on 21 January is prospectively the most thrilling in years, not only - thank heaven - because of France and England, but also because of the rising stock of the Welsh and Irish.

Having said all that, it would be churlish to deny that World Cup '95 - just like World Cups '91 and '87 - will make this an exceptional rugby year. And afterwards, just as we all said in '91 and '87, rugby union will never be the same again.

This is simply the most obvious comment one can make about it; the outcome of the tournament itself is, by contrast, gloriously unpredictable. We have it on the authority of Louis Luyt, no less, that the quaint notion of amateurism that still pervades rugby's corridors of power - though not the corridors outside the dressing- rooms - will become passe as soon as the last pass is given.

The president of the South African Rugby Football Union is bending with the prevailing wind, though in a sense he is also blowing it. …