Standards head south to warm All Black hearts

With the World Cup only months away, the inconsistencies in this year's Six Nations offered little indication of northern hemisphere success, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

The list of people England's dejected players would rather not see just at the moment is very long indeed, with the stellar All Black backs Daniel Carter and Sonny Bill Williams occupying positions close to the top. And who are the men heading for London as we speak? That would be Daniel Carter and Sonny Bill Williams, both of whom are expected to break new ground at Twickenham this coming weekend by playing for the Christchurch-based Crusaders against the Durban-based Sharks in the first Super 15 match ever to be staged in Europe. What better place for the princes of the game to show the red rose paupers how to do it properly.

And before the Celts start chuckling – not to mention the French and the Italians – will not the likes of Carter and Williams, backed up by an Israel Dagg here, a Kieran Read there and a Brad Thorn somewhere else, show them a thing or two? Of course they will. Six months shy of the World Cup in New Zealand, the top rugby nations in the northern hemisphere have just completed a Six Nations tournament that gave no indication at all of a power-shift away from the Beautiful South.

The competition was for the most part closely fought and rather intriguing in its own peculiar way, but standards were not so much low as subterranean. If England were hopeless in Dublin – such a far cry from their convincing performance on opening night in Cardiff – everyone else was just as bad at some point during the championship. This uncomfortable truth leaves all the northern challengers pondering some difficult questions ahead of the global gathering in September.

England: Defeat in Dublin raises questions about progress under Johnson

Make no mistake, the defeat at Lansdowne Road on Saturday evening was comfortably the worst suffered by a red rose team in the Six Nations since Brian Ashton's side copped a 40-pointer in the same city in 2007. The difference? There are several. The Ireland side of four years ago was vastly more experienced than the 2011 vintage; the game was the first played between the two nations in the politically-charged surroundings of Croke Park, hence the heightened emotion of the occasion; and Ashton had been coaching England for only a few weeks and was deep in make-do-and-mend mode.

Martin Johnson has been doing things his way for almost three years now, yet the advantage established over Ireland by Ashton in 2008, when Danny Cipriani inspired England to a 33-10 victory at Twickenham, has disappeared. The fact that Cipriani, a box-office talent if ever there was one, is now playing in Australia, just about as far away from the red rose set-up as he can get, speaks of a failure of man-management that must be laid at the door of the current hierarchy.

Cipriani might have spared Johnson some terrible trouble with his midfield selection – the most obvious of England's current weaknesses, as emphasised by the clever Jonathan Sexton and the great Brian O'Driscoll on Grand Slam night. All is not lost, even so: Alex Corbisiero and Tom Wood, prop and flanker respectively, entered the Six Nations as Test virgins and ended it with some notches on their bedposts. With Courtney Lawes to be reincorporated at lock and Chris Ashton looking capable of just about anything on the wing – and, indeed, everywhere else on the field, irrespective of the opposition – there is at least some derring-do about Johnson's team.

But several of the onwards-and-upwards brigade, Toby Flood and Ben Youngs especially, went backwards and downwards in Dublin, and there is no guarantee they will recover quickly from the experience.

Wales: Gatland's value undermined by indiscipline, injuries and results

Like Andy Robinson, the Wales coach Warren Gatland is in the early months of a four-year contract extension. Unlike Robinson, who put pen to paper after some strong performances against southern hemisphere opposition home and away, Gatland could not point to a body of recent work and say to his rugby public: "Because I'm worth it." The New Zealander needed a big Six Nations. What he got was a medium-sized one that ultimately fell short of expectations.

Wales were badly weakened when England came visiting on opening night, having lost two Lions props in Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones. The stand-ins fought the good fight but were comfortably outpointed, and this left the country shrouded in gloom that was only partially lifted by three straight victories thereafter.

Last weekend, the dark stuff descended again, on and off the field. Gatland's second in command, Shaun Edwards, missed the fruitless trip to Paris for disciplinary reasons, and this said all that needed saying about the state of the Red Dragonhood. If a coach cannot behave himself, what chance a group of undisciplined players living it up in a "big fish, small pond" environment? As ever with Wales, talent is not the issue. Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jamie Roberts, James Hook, Mike Phillips... these blokes can play. So too can Matthew Rees, Bradley Davies, Dan Lydiate and the exceptional new breakaway Sam Warburton up front.

But unless the entire Test squad get a grip, they will fritter away the best of themselves.

Ireland: The real winners as O'Connell and Co rekindle raging fire

Until grand Slam night, the Irish had been nothing better than ho-hum: shocking in Rome, profligate against the French, good in parts at Murrayfield and self-defeating in Cardiff, even allowing for the visually-impaired refereeing. Last weekend changed everything, for the better. The energy generated by Paul O'Connell and his forwards, one or two of whom were assumed to be a little long in the tooth, bordered on the phenomenal, and if they whip up a storm of similar intensity when they meet the Wallabies in Auckland in mid-September, a seriously good World Cup campaign could develop.

The Irish front row was, at the start of the tournament, in the same place as the English midfield: that is to say, up a gum tree. Happily for Declan Kidney and his back-room staff, the emergence of Mike Ross as a tight-head prop capable of anchoring a scrum at Test level put the rest of the green-shirted forwards in a far better position to go about their business. Add to that the strong showing of the new flanker Sean O'Brien, and it might be said that Ireland have emerged from the championship ahead of the game.

They have Stephen Ferris, a very high calibre of loose forward, to feed back into the pack and they have options at scrum-half, outside-half, wing and full-back. They also have a burning need. O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, Lions captains both, have one last shot at this World Cup lark, as do the likes of Ronan O'Gara and Donncha O'Callaghan. When Ireland arrive in New Zealand, they will not be short of desire.

Italy: Bottom once more but looking up

There is something eerily familiar about the Six Nations table in its completed form. Ah, that's it: Italy are the ones occupying the most southerly position, just as they do geographically. Yet it might be argued that they made as much progress as anyone over the course of the tournament, and a whole lot more than most.

It was not merely an individual thing – not just that Andrea Masi finally started performing at the optimum, or that Alessandro Zanni fulfilled the potential that was obviously present when he first broke into the side in 2005, or that Sergio Parisse played like a god. The improvement was collective and it expressed itself in terms of concentration and discipline: new virtues to set alongside the more familiar Azzurri touchstones of yearning and passion.

Two things will take them to the next level. One of them is certain to happen: Edoardo Gori, their brilliant young scrum-half, will recover from the cruel injury that denied him all but a few minutes of action in a championship he looked set to illuminate.

The other is an unknown. Nick Mallett, who might easily have coached the side to three victories rather than one over the last seven weeks, says he wants to remain in post, even though his employers are courting replacements. If the Italians have any sense, they will stick rather than twist.

Scotland: Wooden smile, but Robinson has plenty to do

Andy Robinson had a smile on his face after watching his side beat Italy in the wooden spoon match at Murrayfield. A Robinson smile is always disconcerting, for it rarely means what it should: indeed, it has been observed more than once that the former England coach's happiness level is in inverse proportion to the degree of joy on his face.

So what might he have made of his second Six Nations as Scotland boss? He cannot be contemplating throwing a party, surely. The Scots fronted up well enough in Paris, losing out by the odd try in seven, and their performances over the last two rounds had something to recommend them. But the losses to Wales and Ireland were truly ghastly from the defensive point of view, and when players unable to score tries make try-scoring easy for everyone else, they quickly find themselves in an ocean of trouble.

The Scottish scrummaging was unexpectedly conciliatory – is the devout Euan Murray taking the Christian message more seriously than a prop should? – and the half-back problem is not quite solved, although Robinson would have done better to leave the promising Rory Lawson-Ruaridh Jackson partnership intact on Calcutta Cup day, rather than substituting both men at the wrong moment.

As for the not-so-cutting edge out wide ... well, if you haven't got 'em, you haven't got 'em. Robinson is as resourceful as any coach around, but not even he cannot invent three try-scoring backs.

France: Individual brilliance won't save fractured team

Once a coach has labelled his players "cowards", as Marc Lièvremont did in the immediate aftermath of Les Bleus' defeat by Italy in Rome, can mutual trust ever be restored?

If the French Federation believe, or even suspect, the answer to that little conundrum to be "non", they would do well to bid Lièvremont adieu and ask the best of the coaches in the domestic Top 14 tournament – Guy Noves of Toulouse springs most quickly to mind – to carry out a fireman's job until the end of the World Cup.

There is not obviously much wrong with the Tricolore game that Maxime Médard, Vincent Clerc, Yannick Jauzion, Morgan Parra, Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy could not put right if left to their own devices, especially if the brilliant centre Maxime Mermoz could stay fit for longer than the time it takes to assemble an omelette. But with Lièvremont running the show, the pieces fail to fit. By and large, the team's performances since winning the Slam last year have ranged from just about acceptable to spellbindingly dire.

The prospect of a France-England quarter-final at the World Cup remains strong: not even a side still at loggerheads with Lièvremont could conceivably foul up against the might of Tonga, Japan and Canada; not even a red rose side without a midfield should lose to both Argentina and Scotland. Could Les Bleus carry the day on the evidence of the last few weeks? Absolutely. Armed with brilliant individuals like Médard and Parra, Dusautoir and Harinordoquy, they could do most things. But if the coach-player relationship is no better than that between Bernard Laporte and his personnel in 2007, we will see nothing of le beau jeu.