Ireland a long way adrift
So how much more knowledgeable are we today than at the start of the Autumn Series? More pertinently, perhaps, how better armed is Declan Kidney now, as we move towards the Six Nations, than he was four weeks ago? In all honesty, not a lot.
The nature of the Autumn Series provides an opportunity for fresh northern hemisphere sides with home comforts to put one over on weary southern hemisphere opposition yearning for the end of their professional season.
Both the Scots and English managed to pull one big one out of the bag, against the Springboks and Wallabies respectively. We, like the Welsh, failed to deliver a knockout blow of consequence. The opening joust with the Springboks was our opportunity. Forget about New Zealand, at this point in time they are operating on a different plane to everyone else.
In fact, not that we need reminding, this Autumn Series has again hammered home just how big the gap between the Tri Nations outfits and the rest really is.
The collective positives came in the final 10 minutes against South Africa, an improved line-out and win against the Samoans, a spirited showing against the New Zealanders and a decent opening 40 minutes against the Pumas. In specific terms, our set-pieces fluctuated from game to game with arguably the most even 80 minutes coming against the mighty Kiwis.
Primary phase frailty is something we were aware of and, in the absence of Paul O'Connell and transition in the front-row, something we had to expect. However, the inability to resecure possession, particularly on opposition restarts, is a relatively new and disturbing failing.
The return of a fit O'Connell should plug that gaping hole. The restart has become a means to primary possession in the modern game almost on a par with the scrum and line-out, hence the cause for concern and the need for some serious work in the coming weeks.
The four-match series was an important learning experience for the newly constituted front-row. Were the Six Nations starting tomorrow, I suspect it would be Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Tony Buckley starting.
Buckley needs game time urgently and plenty of it, while Cronin, though electricity on legs around the field, has much homework still to do on his line-out throwing. Much like kicking, it is an art. Some are naturals, while others have to work that much harder at it. Certainly for the otherwise outstanding Limerick-born hooker, every spare minute should be used up in that regard.
Come February, one Ard Scoil man (Cronin) should be finding another (O'Connell) almost with his eyes closed.
Both Rory Best and Jerry Flannery could be back in the frame by then and Flannery (when fully fit) is still the top choice in my book. However, all three, not to mention Damien Varley and Denis Fogarty, are quality hookers of the highest order. There may be a dearth of props in Irish rugby, but the conveyor belt to the position in between is operating as efficiently as ever.
O'Connell, if fit, and Donncha O'Callaghan will fill the second-row, with Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip also certainties in the back-row, leaving the main forward issue beyond hooker at No 7.
Kidney wants it to be David Wallace and it isn't too difficult to comprehend why. The dynamic, ball-carrying Wallace effectively selects himself when firing on all cylinders, but he is operating below that level and is uncharacteristically spilling passes and losing possession in contact.
As long as Gordon D'Arcy (back to his very best against Argentina on Sunday) and Brian O'Driscoll continue to scrap for possession in the tackle at the breakdown, the case holds for Ferris, Wallace and Heaslip in terms of balance and impact around the fringes.
Beyond that Jonny Sexton will take the pivotal playmaking position, leaving it a scrap between Peter Stringer and the returning Tomas O'Leary to be the Leinster man's half-back partner. The manner in which Stringer has worked himself back into the Test frame speaks volumes for his resilience and desire .
Eoin Reddan is still very much in the picture, but over the course of the November internationals Stringer has overtaken him as second choice behind O'Leary. Certainly in the fundamental art of passing it is no contest, with Stringer in a different league in terms of speed and accuracy to everyone else.
D'Arcy and O'Driscoll will start in midfield, with Tommy Bowe on the right wing and the unlucky Luke Fitzgerald, if fit, on the left. That would leave it a straight call between Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy for the last line. There is also the option of switching either Fitzgerald or Keith Earls to full-back, but Fitzgerald on the left with Earls the utility replacement back seems the best option for now in covering all angles.
I do not share the ill-informed criticism of Kearney as an attacking force. In fact, if anything it would be the occasional defensive glitch -- both positional and individual -- which might cause concern.
In many ways, both attack-conscious full-backs are cut from the same cloth. Much will depend on their form for Leicester and Leinster respectively between now and the opening Six Nations clash in Rome. With a question mark over Kearney's fitness, it would appear slight advantage to Murphy.
The other tactical issue of concern is loose and aimless kicking. 'What we have we hold' must be the guiding mantra, particularly so in the modern 'advantage to the attacking team' game. Why give away ball cheaply when it is becoming so difficult to win it off first phase in the first place?
Furthermore, we are well equipped from Nos 11 to 15 to make hot possession count. It's not as if we, like the Pumas or the Azzurri, depend on a limited game to eke out our points.
That said, I would like to see us work that much harder on any opposition kick to support the catcher (usually one of the back three) on the counter. Here, as in so many other ways, the support ethic of the All Blacks is exemplary, enabling them to shift the point of attack almost every time to the middle and opposite side where opposition bodies are at a minimum.
As New Zealand completed a fourth Grand Slam -- three with effectively this squad -- South Africa beat England (with quite a bit to spare) and Australia slaughtered the French in Paris, we at least finished on a winning high. The southern hemisphere dominance is undisputed and has, if nothing else, paved the way for the most open Six Nations in many a long day.
As a springboard to September's World Cup, a good Six Nations is essential. To that end, assuming a full hand in terms of form and fitness, I suspect Kidney's Six Nations thinking to run along the following lines:
15 -- R Kearney (Leinster)
14 -- T Bowe (Ospreys)
13 -- B O'Driscoll,(Leinster)
12 -- G D'Arcy (Leinster)
11 -- L Fitzgerald (Leinster)
10 -- J Sexton (Leinster)
9 -- T O'Leary (Munster)
1 -- C Healy (Leinster)
2 -- J Flannery (Munster)
3 -- T Buckley (Munster)
4 -- D O'Callaghan (Munster)
5 -- P O'Connell (Munster)
6 -- S Ferris (Ulster)
7 -- D Wallace (Munster)
8 -- J Heaslip (Leinster)
16 -- S Cronin (Connacht)
17 -- T Court (Ulster)
18 -- D Ryan (Munster)
19 -- D Leamy (Munster)
20 -- P Stringer (Munster)
21 -- R O'Gara (Munster)
22 -- K Earls (Munster)