Ireland for the World Cup? Scotland to play off for third place? Dream on. The evidence provided by a Six Nations Championship blessed with its share of cliff-hanging encounters but damned by an absence of attacking creativity may be taken to suggest a revival in Celtic fortunes ahead of next year's global beanfeast in France, but the wise amongst us will take it another way entirely. Only two European teams will threaten at the business end of the competition. Yes, that's them.
Much will be said and written about the parlous state of English rugby over the next fortnight or so, and if the world champions disappear under an avalanche of Wallaby points in Australia this summer, a whole lot more will be spouted before the start of the new Premiership campaign in September. Yet with Mathew Tait and Tom Varndell on the horizon, with Iain Balshaw looking the part again after months and years of injury trauma, with dear old Jonny-boy aiming to spend more than 10 consecutive minutes on a rugby field for the first time in aeons... who will dismiss England as cannon-fodder come the crucial set-to with South Africa in Paris in 18 months?
By and large, tournaments are won by forwards. Ask Martin Johnson. And on balance, England still have the best tight forwards in the world game. What is more, the likes of Andrew Sheridan and Matt Stevens will be considerably more potent next year than they are now, which is why Andy Robinson believes a well rested, fully fit, lovingly prepared squad will make a decent fist of defending the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2007. As he mentioned at the weekend, it is only half a dozen matches since his side were a couple passes away from wiping the Grand Slam sheen clean off New Zealand faces.
Of course, there are personnel issues to address. Robinson needs an inside centre with a kicking game - Wilkinson? Olly Barkley? - and a scrum-half who both knows where he is going and is young enough to get there. He needs a specialist open-side flanker, too: step forward Tom Rees of Wasps or Magnus Lund of Sale, preferably in Sydney this coming June. But when all is said and done, England remain in a position of some advantage. If the Rugby Football Union holds its nerve, freshens up the coaching team and stops attempting to score cheap political points off the Premiership clubs, there is no reason to weep.
The fact the French won this championship while faffing around in second gear for all but a few minutes of its duration should, on the face of it, plunge British Isles rugby into a pit of despond, but if anyone should be panicking, it is the Tricolores themselves. With their pack ageing decades by the minute - since when did Fabien Pelous and Pieter de Villiers play entire matches without anyone noticing? - they were forced to rely on occasional flickers of inspiration from Thomas Castaignède, Florian Fritz and Frédéric Michalak. Between them, these three eked out the victories that mattered. They cannot possibly do it ad infinitum, though. France will need more than a fit Yannick Jauzion to make the most of their host status next year.
Scotland were magnificent, given the limits imposed on them by a chronic lack of resources, human as well as financial. If the back-row unit - Jason White, Ally Hogg and Simon Taylor - was their pride and joy, there were flashes of grandeur at scrum-half and wing, too. Best of all, Frank Hadden has given them a sense of identity wholly beyond the understanding of his predecessor as head coach, the Australian import Matt Williams. Scotland did well to export him back to Wallaby country and choose a man who speaks the language, literally as well as figuratively.
As for the Irish - have they really moved on? But for poor officiating, they would probably have lost to Italy and England. They prospered mightily in the second half in Paris, but as they were 40 points down at the time, it said more about the French than about anyone else. Oh yes, they also failed to score a try against the Scots, despite the quality of their midfield runners. We will discover more when they travel to New Zealand this summer.
And the bottom feeders? Wales were a joke - a poorly led, badly handled, indisciplined rabble. So there. The Italians were precisely the opposite: superbly coached by Pierre Berbizier, resourcefully captained by Marco Bortolami and sparked into life by the brilliant Mirco Bergamasco.
They managed only a single draw, yet thoroughly justified their presence in the competition. Of all the contenders, the bottom team had most to celebrate. Strange days indeed.Reuse content