Tomorrow's draw for the 2015 Rugby World Cup will play out to a backdrop of modern art and an age-old conundrum. Hard as the home nations try to catch up with the southern-hemisphere superpowers, the top three seeds for the pools to be decided in the super-cool surroundings of The Tanks at Tate Modern in London will be New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, with France for company, while England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales look on jealously from a rung or two down the rankings.
The home teams' autumn had been heading for an omnishambles until the Irish finished their November matches by thrashing a tiring Argentina last weekend and England did likewise to the previously unconquerable All Blacks yesterday. But it came too late for England to hold on to the fourth place in the rankings they held at the outset of the season's series of four matches, and so they lost the chance of an easier pool for the global get-together they host in three years' time.
Wales, meanwhile, knew defeat to Australia yesterday would sink them into the third band of seeds for the draw. The Grand Slammers now face a possible World Cup pool comprising the holders, New Zealand, and an England team playing with home advantage. Exciting for the punters, rotten for the tournament should England or Wales be knocked out before the quarter-finals.
The home unions' results – three wins and 10 losses – have been the worst since November Tests became a regular fixture 15 years ago, even if the Sanzar big three failed at the final hurdle to go unbeaten for the first time since 1997.
England might be expected to overcome any domestic failings, but Wales, after seven straight defeats including their summer tour, may not be so sure. "England have the players," said Dan Carter, the New Zealand fly-half. "Talent is not an issue. Consistency is." Schalk Brits, Saracens' South Africa hooker, reckons England are building a team that could win in 2015. Mike Phillips, the Wales scrum-half, said with no little justification: "Welsh rugby is crazy, it's like EastEnders."
The stock reaction when trouble looms in the soap is to get out of Walford; the Welsh and their cash-strapped regions were upset by losing Phillips and half-a-dozen other stars to French clubs. Ditto England, whose head coach, Stuart Lancaster, snubbed the in-form Steffon Armitage in part because the Toulon flanker was unavailable to play against New Zealand yesterday.
The Rugby Football Union are trying the appliance of science, hiring the cycling guru Matt Parker and reviewing their elite rugby system with Sir Ian McGeechan and Peter Keen. Between 2000 and 2003 England won every autumn international and became world champions, spearheaded by Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Jonny Wilkinson, Will Greenwood and Jason Robinson: men made by an alchemy of parents, schools, clubs, nature, nurture.
Four of them emerged from the amateur era; Robinson was signed from rugby league. They became subject to Clive Woodward's novel if sometimes wacky ideas and preparation. He is said now to have a masterplan to redraw English rugby top to bottom, but do the RFU need to give him the chance?
Since 2003 the club scene has become more intense and intensive, populated by giants, analysed to the nth degree. Yet in the Premiership, sixth place and qualification to the Heineken Cup counts as success, and the aim is for every team to be capable of beating every other. Does that drive standards up or down? Is it a help or hindrance that Brits and his fellow overseas recruits occupy key positions, making up a third of players who are non-English qualified?
Asked about the south's sustained success, Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, said: "It starts in schoolboy rugby, particularly in South Africa and New Zealand. The players are pushed there, with a level of intensity at 17 or 18 programmed into them year after year after year.
"I don't feel like our players are continually placed under that level of scrutiny. At times they are, but we have to replicate in training what southern-hemisphere teams get in their games." For this reason, Gatland said, a series together makes a team stronger; that certainly appeared to work for England against the All Blacks after their facile win over Fiji and narrow losses to Australia and South Africa.
Band 1 New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and France will be drawn into one pool each, to be joined by one team from each of the bands 2, 3, 4 and 5, drawn at random from the teams below.
Band 2 England, Ireland, Samoa, Argentina.
Band 3 Wales, Italy, Tonga, Scotland.
Band 4 Oceania 1 (probably Fiji), Europe 1 (one of Georgia, Romania, Spain, Russia, Portugal, Belgium), Asia 1 (probably Japan), Americas 1 (USA or Canada).
Band 5 Africa 1 (one of Kenya, Madagascar, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Senegal, Tunisia), Europe 2 (one of Georgia, Romania, Spain, Russia, Portugal, Belgium), Americas 2 (USA, Canada or another qualifier), Repêchage winner (from Africa, Americas, Asia or Europe).
Autumn of discontent
The home unions have hosted regular series of autumn Tests in non-World Cup years since 1997, against Argentina, Australia, Canada, Fiji, Japan, New Zealand, Pacific Islanders, Romania, Samoa, South Africa and Tonga.
In these 149 games (excluding the World Cup qualifiers in 1998), the home unions have won 74, drawn five and lost 70.
The best autumn across all four teams was in 2002, when England, Ireland and Scotland won all nine of their matches, and Wales won three out of four.
England won all their matches from 2000-02, as they built towards the World Cup win in Australia in November 2003. But 2005 was the last year when England won more than they lost.
This year's tally is 10 losses and only three wins (Ireland v Argentina, England v Fiji and v New Zealand).