Reasons to be cheerful
Rout of England suggests Ireland can outshine Six Nations rivals at World Cup
IRELAND: The 2010-2011 Northern Hemisphere season, which can finally be laid to rest, was rather reminiscent of one of those visits to an expensive restaurant where your trip is wrapped in hype and anticipation, but you come away thinking 'what was all that about, then'?
Northern Hemisphere rugby is seldom short of hype. Maybe that explains the huge attendances that continue to flock to the game.
How else to explain that England have sold out every major international at Twickenham for the last seven years when they've hardly had a side worth crossing the road to watch?
Trouble is the countries of the Northern Hemisphere face their day of judgment in three months' time when the seventh World Cup begins in New Zealand.
So, what state are the Six Nations sides really in?
It depends which day and which mood you wish to discuss.
Did we see the real Ireland in the demolition job on England which debunked the myth of a Red Rose Grand Slam at the end of the Six Nations in March?
Commanding up front and at half-back, where Jonny Sexton has surely now nailed down the starting role at No 10, devastating in the back-row, where Jamie Heaslip and the rapidly emerging Sean O'Brien have made themselves indispensable to the cause, they squashed England's ambitions.
It was the performance of champions, except that they weren't champions, because they had performed as dozily in their opening two games as a student who'd overslept, doing badly at a job interview.
Italy should have beaten them in Rome, then an ordinary French team did beat them in Dublin. Scotland could have done so in Edinburgh. Rank indiscipline was the trouble in each case.
Yet, the performance against England was of another team.
Then there is the uncertainty of whether Leinster's success in the Heineken Cup can be translated into the national team.
It's true, the Heineken Cup is not international rugby, still less a World Cup. But the dynamism with which Leinster saw off European club rugby's best surely offered significant evidence as to the capabilities of these players.
Problem is, many of them have rarely produced such dynamism or clinical performances on a regular basis at Test level.
Undeniably, the pool match against Australia will define Ireland's World Cup. Win that and optimism and self-belief should soar. Lose it, and another quarter-final exit looms.
But they could go further this time. Clearly, they have the players.
Uncertain in their approach, inconsistent in their strategy, too often mentally fragile -- yet this is the nation that has broken New Zealand hearts at two of the last three World Cups.
The Kiwis are alarmed at the prospect of another mugging when they meet their old nemesis in a pool match in this tournament.
They need not be. I don't believe France will do anything at this World Cup except again come up short.
At club level, they have largely deserted their rich heritage of fast, inventive, attacking rugby.
That means there is scant chance of the national team playing that way. Les Bleus have settled for a sort of halfway house -- not so obsessed with forward power as they were in the days of Jacques Fouroux, but not a patch on the sides coached by Pierre Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela in the late 1990s when they won successive Grand Slams and terrified opponents with their dazzling attacking style.
The players often perform under Marc Lievremont as though they don't really know what they are supposed to be doing and still less believe in such plans.
Under Lievremont, changes have been omnipresent, yet no real side has yet been settled on and, consequently, performances have been erratic. How else to explain the 22-21 defeat to Italy in Rome in March?
It's starting to get a bit tiring to suggest the French do still possess the ability to cut loose and destroy anyone.
It's not been a vintage Top 14 season in France and it isn't likely to be a World Cup that France wins for the first time.
England could win the World Cup. But in 2015 when they host it, not this year...
They will go into this tournament as Six Nations champions, but Ireland revealed in Dublin how hollow that tag could be.
There are many reasons for English optimism in four years' time, principally the fact that, by then, so many of their young players should have matured by then.
Quality players abound in England, but many of them lack experience. Four hard years of top-class rugby could transform them.
The internationals of last autumn revealed the potential and the failings of England. A fast, fluid attacking game plan was too much for Australia, yet the South Africans shut them down totally through a superior exhibition of forward might. England had no answer to that.
That they are a work in progress, very far from the finished product, was proven by the narrow eight and six-point victories over France and Scotland, respectively.
Some old warhorses, the likes of Lewis Moody and Mike Tindall, will need replacing after the World Cup and better players are much needed at centre and No 8.
But at least Northampton's Tom Wood has been a major discovery at blindside flank.
Martin Johnson and Co have made significant strides this year. They deserve a better back-up than the crisis-ravaged RFU is providing in the light of the chaotic Clive Woodward affair.
Yet England may need to beat only France and Australia to reach a third successive World Cup final. They could get there, but they won't win it.
Any country that has to dig Gavin Henson out of a tanning salon to fill one of its key roles surely forfeits the right to serious consideration at a World Cup.
Henson chooses his teams and moments to play like a diner -- a la carte. He wouldn't figure on most countries' radar -- witness England throwing out Danny Cipriani.
But there are plenty of other worries within Welsh rugby.
The best players are continuing to ignore national coach Warren Gatland's thinly veiled warning that playing outside Wales could imperil their chances of representing the national team.
The trouble is that Lee Byrne (bound for Clermont Auvergne), James Hook (heading for Perpignan) and Mike Phillips (probably destined for Bayonne) know they can call Gatland's bluff -- 2005 Lions scrum-half Dwayne Peel has long since done so.
Domestically, there seems little room for optimism. No club side in the Heineken Cup semi-finals, no Amlin Challenge finalist and no participation in the Magners League final.
Too many positions are filled by players of modest talents. The Ospreys continue to flatter to deceive, notwithstanding their pack's demolition of the Munster scrummage in this season's Heineken Cup.
Perhaps strangely, Gatland and Shaun Edwards were given new contracts before this World Cup. They may have to go some to justify them back in Gatland's homeland.
Andy Robinson has done wonders with so limited a player base. The Englishman who wears his heart on his sleeve has been just what Scotland needed -- a coach to fire his men with pride.
But will it be enough at the World Cup?
Scotland's chances were probably enhanced by being paired in the same pool as England. They will be up for that one and on the evidence of their competitiveness in the 22-16 defeat at Twickenham in the Six Nations, they could threaten an upset.
The Scots have benefited from the experience some of their best players have gleaned in the English Premiership.
Guys like Kelly Brown, a winner with Saracens in the Championship final, have markedly improved their game. And Nathan Hines will again add bulk and plenty of commitment to the cause.
Wing Max Evans, who is joining the exodus and heading for Castres, is a dangerous runner if properly set up. And certain others, like openside flanker John Barclay, have key roles to play.
But you cannot be fooled about Scotland. They lost heavily to France in Paris and Wales in Edinburgh. They did get close to Ireland, losing 21-18 at home, but chiefly due to Irish errors and indiscipline, not their own efforts. A home win over Italy saved them from outright ownership of the Wooden Spoon.
The All Blacks emphasised with brutal clarity where the Scots are, when they humiliated them at Murrayfield last November. That was the best yardstick in terms of their true strength and status in a world sense.
Nick Mallett's coaching tenure of the Azzurri ends after this World Cup. He is being replaced by Jacques Brunel, formerly of Perpignan, and it is not the choice of the Italian players, who wanted Mallett to stay.
The Italian Federation decreed otherwise, believing that players need to hear a new message after three years.
Clearly, they have never heard of Alex Ferguson.
A first ever victory over France on the final day of the Six Nations season capped a much-improved campaign, disregarding the 59-point collapse at Twickenham. They led Ireland in Rome until the final moments and should have won. They had their moments against Wales, too, before losing by eight points.
Sergio Parisse remains a peerless competitor in most company (Jamie Heaslip excepted) at No 8 in the northern hemisphere.
And the front-row has some scrummagers who are as wily as a barrow load of monkeys. Their antics were much too much for most of the referees in this part of the world.
But Italy are still trying to make cakes with a collection of crumbs. They lack any strength in depth; indeed, they don't have real first-choice quality in many positions. Half-back has been a continuing concern and none of the locks are likely to frighten anyone much for their power or quality.
Mallett has made do with what he has had, and done the best he could. But on the world stage, the Italians are not going to trouble anyone seriously, unless they have a rank bad day, like Ireland in Rome.