Hugh Farrelly reflects on 10 aspects of an up-and-down Six Nations campaign that hold the key to Ireland's World Cup ambitions
THE Six Nations Championship is a treasured title, particularly for Ireland, who have only managed five outright victories going back to 1948, when it was still a five-nations tournament.
However, in World Cup years this annual northern hemisphere international joust carries a different emphasis as a means of getting ready for the bigger challenge down the road.
Like trying on a succession of outfits before the big date, the Six Nations is an opportunity to find out what works and what doesn't, with the realisation that once you leave the house there is no going back.
On that basis, Ireland ended the 2011 tournament looking sharper than any of Europe's other five World Cup suitors. They ended the competition on a high by dismantling England and their Grand Slam aspirations in emphatic style, and by eradicating the problems that had beset them in the earlier rounds of the competition.
The English claimed the title but that achievement was immediately qualified by the nature of their capitulation in Dublin, and there is an element of 'back to the drawing board' for Martin Johnson's side.
France will not have learned a great deal from their comfortable victory over Wales in Paris on Saturday and, after hitting the self-destruct button in Rome the week before, there is still no clear sense of direction under the chaotic stewardship of Marc Lievremont.
Wales proved they have plenty of individual talent but an absence of cohesive force, and Scotland that they have little individual talent or much hope in New Zealand beyond an ability to grapple.
It leaves the Italians as the country to have gained the most, aside from the Irish, from the last seven weeks. Their fitness levels have improved through their Magners League participation and the win over France has provided a feelgood factor that makes them a dangerous presence in Ireland's pool.
So much for sweeping summaries, but what are the specific aspects to be taken from Ireland's campaign?
Errors are all in the mind
The unforced error count made Ireland vulnerable in matches where they were clearly the superior team.
The dropped passes, poor kicks, wayward throws and missed passes that characterised their earlier outings nearly cost them dear against Italy (14 unforced errors) and contributed to defeat against a Welsh side (17 unforced Irish errors) that could have been put to the sword.
There were never any question marks over the skill levels of the players at Declan Kidney's disposal, which made the basic mistakes all the more frustrating, and the quality of the display against England should provide the mental security to put this issue to bed once and for all.
Ireland are not an ill-disciplined side
This is as important for referees to acknowledge as it is for the team itself.
The concession of needless penalties allowed opponents to stay in touch with the Irish despite playing the lesser rugby, while officials were expecting Ireland to transgress and consequently were quick to blow the whistle.
Kidney's men responded to the nadir of Nigel Owen's penalisation in Scotland by cutting their penalty count to single figures against Wales (eight) and England (six) while also setting a tackle/maul agenda that other countries will ape at the World Cup.
Defence is Ireland's trump card
Four tries conceded from five outings is an extremely healthy statistic, particularly when only one of them could be put down to slack defending with no qualifying circumstances.
The Les Kiss 'trust' system falls into neither blitz nor drift categories but is equipped to cater with all manner of offensive play, meaning that even when the line is breached there is cover to seal off the tryline.
New Zealand and Australia provide an extra innovative and off-loading threat but Ireland, led by Donncha O'Callaghan, showed against England that the right tackle technique, where the attacker is held up and ball slowed down, can stymie any opposition momentum.
Excellent defence makes Ireland hard to beat and when that is backed up by potency on the front foot, they become live last-four contenders.
The best game plan is intensity
The game-plan discussion dominated much of Ireland's championship.
After some ill-advised running against Italy and France, kicking became far more dominant against the Scots and Welsh and there appeared to be no clear policy heading into the England match.
Last weekend's victory, with Eoin Reddan conducting expertly from scrum-half, showed that Ireland are at their best playing a high-tempo, mix-and-match game with the ability to have a cut when it is on and kick the corners when required.
Ireland did it in patches against the All Blacks last November, but when they hit that level of intensity for consistent periods, as they did against England, they can hurt any team in the world.
The scrum is always the starting point
Ireland set the physical and psychological tone on Saturday in the first scrum.
Having missed out in November, Mike Ross made his point conclusively in this championship that going with the best scrummaging tight-head is always the best policy.
Cian Healy and Rory Best also contributed handsomely to the front-row effort, but the most encouraging aspect to the scrum progression under Greg Feek has been the determination of all eight forwards to provide a platform.
Ross has taken over John Hayes' old mantle in becoming essential to the operation. It means leaving him on the park for as long as he is needed, with quality cover to come in and ensure no slip in standards.
Ireland need Ulster's Tom Court playing tight-head for the rest of the season, while Tony Buckley going well at No 3 for Munster would also help, as there are
less worries with either man covering loose-head.
Full-back is up for grabs
Luke Fitzgerald proved that left wing is his best position and remains a vital running weapon heading to New Zealand, but the issue of who wears the No 15 jersey remains a live one.
Keith Earls had an excellent championship and was superb at full-back against England, giving the Irish a counter-attacking edge they had lacked previously.
However, he was never tested under the high ball and could well go back to playing centre for Munster.
If you fast-forward to a potential World Cup quarter-final against South Africa in Auckland (possibly in wet conditions) you have to factor in Morne Steyn doing what Toby Flood failed to do on Saturday, and that brings Rob Kearney firmly back into the equation, assuming he makes a successful recovery from injury.
Ireland need a sensible bench
Paddy Wallace should travel to the World Cup as back-up (third-choice) out-half and an extra centre option, but having the Ulster man among the replacements as back-three cover makes little sense.
With Tommy Bowe guaranteed to start at 14, there is a clutch of options for 15, 11 and the back-three bench role between Kearney, Earls, Fitzgerald, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden. On the basis of logic, Wallace should not be among them.
The other bench issue is the back-row slot. Denis Leamy is a warrior but does not provide specialist open-side or line-out cover and carrying one of the Leinster quartet of Rhys Ruddock, Kevin McLaughlin, Dominic Ryan or Shane Jennings is more logical.
Substitutions need a purpose
Ronan O'Gara's introduction for Jonathan Sexton on Saturday was perfectly timed, while the majority of the rest of the bench-clearing was understandable on the basis of the game being won and rewarding squad effort.
However, O'Gara was taken off too early in the previous two matches, as was Mike Ross on Saturday, when Tom Court could not maintain the scrum dominance.
Substitutions should fall into three categories -- if the team are struggling in a specific area; if there needs to be a change of focus to chase or see out the game; or if the victory is secured and players can be given a run.
Homework pays dividends
Analyst Mervyn Murphy earned his corn on Saturday. England arrived with a reputation for cutting teams open with their 'trail-blazing' policy but the Irish had them worked out.
Chris Ashton only managed to make one meaningful incursion, which was snuffed out by Ireland's reactionary excellence, and they were also able to negate the influence of scrum-half Ben Youngs through scrum wheels and clever tracking.
It emphasised the importance of proper homework and even 'off the cuff' teams like New Zealand and Australia operate systems that can be broken down.
Have no fear
The key lesson. There was a chicken-and-egg situation in the first four outings, when mistakes and penalties led to a lack of surety which caused further errors and indiscipline.
Saturday proved that Ireland have worked successfully on the aspects of their game that were hindering their progress and that when it all comes together they have the capacity to take on anyone.
With defence and set-pieces now providing firm foundations, there is the added boon of a squad dripping in experience and leadership through their spine from Rory Best, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Sexton/O'Gara, Brian O'Driscoll to Kearney at the back.
Furthermore, in Kidney, Kiss, Gert Smal and Feek, Ireland have the men to mastermind a meaningful cup campaign.
Put it all together and it makes for a pretty tasty World Cup cocktail.