It may be grim up north but hope springs eternal
The target of World Cup 2011 is realistic, we're just not starting from a great place, writes Eddie Butler
There used to be a digital display at London's Paddington station showing the size of the US national debt. Dollars rose by the fistful, by the nano-second, although I presume the bankers would have reassured us that the numbers that mattered, the trillions owed, moved more slowly. Hell, what did they know?
The display has vanished, presumably because they ran out of space. It would have been interesting to see platforms 1, 2 and 3, with services to Penzance, Bristol Temple Meads and Swansea, elbowed aside by the General Motors bail-out.
Still, as one counter stops running up debt, another ticks down time. As the November internationals approach, we are reminded that the 2011 Rugby World Cup clock is now running, with just over 10 months to go before the tournament opens in Auckland. And the question grows more pressing: is anybody in the northern hemisphere in any position to challenge the southern?
The temptation is to say that Scotland -- they start a week later -- will be looking to kick on after their back-to-back double over Argentina last summer. To beat the Pumas once on tour was an achievement in anyone's books; to follow it up a week later with a second win was to be long feted.
But Scotland open up on Saturday week against the All Blacks and the harsh truth is that they have never beaten New Zealand.
It is obvious that England must have been fortified by their win against Australia last summer and are ready to rumble positively towards a tournament that holds no fears for them. Three World Cup finals, in 1991, 2003 and 2007, speak for themselves, and Martin Johnson has every reason to approach this latest campaign with his peak un-shrouded by cloud.
The retirement last week of Phil Vickery, after the umpteenth injury to his neck, underlined the reality of the modern game, the cruel law of engagement that will deprive a coach at any given time of nearly a quarter of his workforce. Much as the toughness of the Premiership is often stressed, this is not, however, the curse of the English, since the statistic applies the professional world over. Strangely enough, the injury rate is even higher in Sevens.
Oblivious to danger, England will be preparing to launch themselves at the All Blacks, confident as always in the set-piece strength of the forwards, and with a lurking belief that Ben Youngs could become the sensation of the age. A scrum-half who keeps defenders anchored to the fringes of the breakdowns opens up a new host of possibilities for England's underexposed back three.
The problem for England, and for all the other European nations trying to lay a path all the way to the final in Auckland on October 23 next year, is that right now in 2010 does not happen to be a particularly good starting point.
The All Blacks and the Wallabies arrive with a Bledisloe Cup match in Hong Kong under their belts. Nothing in training camp beats the real thing, which in this case doubles up as the next instalment in the duel between the maestro, Richie McCaw, and the young pretender, David Pocock, to see who is the best No 7 on the planet.
Wales and England go into their respective games against Australia and New Zealand cold, barely rested after the recent Heineken Cup games. Two rounds of cross-border competition served a purpose, but only for the sub-international units. The Ospreys, for example, would have been lifted by their victory over London Irish, but as a pointer towards the next level it offered not much more than extra bruises. Everything at that regional level -- including the subsequent defeat away to Glasgow in the Magners League -- will have to be unpicked for the Wales cause. It takes time.
South Africa might say they too had players devoted to another cause this very weekend, before descending on our parts. The Currie Cup final pitched Western Province against the Natal Sharks with a host of Springboks involved, from Schalk Burger and Bryan Habana on one side to the entire Sharks front row on the other.
Compare that with Ireland's careful protection of their international players through the opening weeks of this season, and it perhaps leaves them with the best chance of landing a victory on the opening weekend of the autumn series, especially if they declare Brian O'Driscoll fit for action after his hamstring strain.
Even in Ireland, where national and regional causes rarely clash, there have been rumblings about the lack of appearances by the stars, but if Declan Kidney can launch international rugby at the new stadium with a win, then all the moans about value for money, including a few gripes about ticket prices at the new manor, will soon be forgotten.
John Steele, the new chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, has set a certain target for Johnson: two wins. This does not seem unreasonable. It's just that they've given themselves the toughest assignment in the opening game: those All Blacks. It may equally be said that two victories do allow for two defeats, which seems just as reasonable.
Wales probably have in mind two victories also. Their problem is that Fiji, in the light of what happened at the 2007 World Cup, are not a given.
Warren Gatland presumably will still use his Friday night game on November 19 to experiment a little, but the nature of the opposition, plus the memory of how such experimentation very nearly backfired on him in Rome in 2009, might restrain him.
The slightly gloomy point, I suppose, is that the ticking counter might register more debt than progress this November. It might, however, also record the time when new reputations were established. Keep an eye on Ireland's Sean O'Brien, Andrew Bishop for Wales, Ben Youngs as mentioned, and Ruaridh Jackson for Scotland. Can the southern hemisphere be beaten?
Yes, but perhaps not yet.