The brutal message of the World Cup so far has been the extent of the stagnation of the Six Nations sides. Even though we've suspected a lack of progress in recent seasons I've been surprised, if not a little shocked, by how far our teams have fallen behind.
And it is not only the southern hemisphere countries who have upped their game at our expense.The so-called minnows of the rest of the world have also made massive improvements while we've been marking time.
The USA against England, Canada against Wales, Georgia and Namibia against Ireland, Portugal against Italy. The Six Nations sides eventually came out on top but not before being put through the wringer in a manner that was embarrassing at times. These were not one-off performances, either, but clear evidence of who in world rugby has been standing still.
England played with a bit more purpose to escape being embarrassed by Samoa yesterday but they still lack conviction in their midfield.
The southern hemisphere's domination of the tournament so far is hardly a surprise but when you examine their performances it is not the scorelines that impress as much as the dynamic athleticism they've demonstrated. They play the game at such a pace, and recycle the ball so quickly, our teams don't have an answer. Compared with them we are ponderous and unimaginative.
I did fancy France might rise to the occasion. They possess the power and the pace to trouble anyone but they have yet to show the ability to apply those qualities with the flair and imagination that will be necessary to win the World Cup.
It is possible they will improve as the tournament progresses but I didn't see much evidence when they played Ireland on Friday night. It was a very tight and tense match because there was so much at stake but there was a worrying lack of creative influences on display.
The Frédéric Michalak kick that led to Vincent Clerc's first try was a rare piece of brilliance but whether he can control a game in the ferocity that's ahead is questionable.
I was very surprised that France didn't go all out for tries after that. Ireland, who were still in the game at half-time, were there for the taking after that try. It was a great opportunity for France to step up a few gears but they didn't.
As for Ireland, their defence was good but they were slow and just didn't create anything but penalties for France. The Irish discipline just went haywire. They now have to score four tries against Argentina in order to qualify for the quarter- finals. I can see them winning the game, but finding the creative sparks to score four tries might be asking too much of them.
France may have to settle for second place and a visit to Cardiff to play New Zealand in the quarter-final. The All Blacks would not have expected to meet the hosts that early, and certainly not in a foreign country. It could all turn out to be a sick joke as far as European rugby is concerned.
It was not a situation that will make a dent in the composure of the southern hemisphere teams. All they have to worry about is each other. What we have to do is take a long, hard and honest look at the way they play their rugby over the next month.
It is a fact that they tend to be naturally bigger than us but it is not just a matter of bulk. Our players have worked very hard to bulk up –most of them seem to be bulging out of their new-style shirts – but you need more than muscle.
Where the southern hemisphere have advanced way beyond us is in the speed that accompanies their size and the intelligence with which they read the game. It is not bulk that gets you past defenders; it is speed and thought.
While we are still in the bash-bash stage, they are far more nimble in feet and brain. They also apply their strength and guile to the way they defend. When they face rucks or mauls they position a defender on either side and they stand like guardian pillars repelling any activity around the fringe.
Consequently, our pick-and-drive attacks grind forward at a snail's pace and produce nothing but slow ball. It is very difficult for our forwards to cope with and I trust they are working hard in their training camps to come up with other ways of creating the quick service that is vital nowadays.
We have no chance if we can't match their ability to create quick ball and then get over the gain-line with it. Their entire philosophy is geared to it. You watch the way the New Zealand and Australia back five forwards use their size and speed to take the ball on and then skillfully off-load it so that someone else can do the damage.
If you don't make the gain-line your priority, anything you do when in possession can quickly become meaningless. England and Wales, in particular, have been trying to play football too soon, moving laterally when they haven't established any gain-line supremacy. Our friends from the south only start to play football once they've got over the gain-line and have punched a big hole they can exploit.
It is also obvious that whereas we in the north seem to be forever attacking their strengths, they are probing constantly for our weaknesses. And their angles of running are supreme compared to ours. They go for the defender's arm instead of his shoulder and they do so at such a high pace they are almost impossible to stop.
I've noticed, also, the telling width they put on their passing from ruck or maul. They take out the first two defenders with a pass and then give a flat ball to a runner hitting the line at speed. The way they can change the point of attack is so confusing for defences.
It is not rocket science. While we seem to overcomplicate everything they take the simple route: hit the hole and run like hell. The Aussies produced a move against Wales last weekend which demonstrated that simplicity. From a ball off the top of a line-out, George Gregan threw a long flat pass to Lote Tuqiri which he took on an angle that put him through between the back of the line-out and the outside-half.
Nothing came from it in the end but it broke Wales wide open. It was just a straightforward piece of creative awareness. I'm still hoping I might see similar slices of stunning simplicity from one or more of our teams.
Wales scored 72 points against Japan on Thursday night but even then they struggled to cross the gain-line with any incisive regularity. It wasn't encouraging. But we are not going to reach the heights attained by our southern rivals without a complete change of approach and attitude – not only to the way we play but also to the structure of our season.
They say that there are lessons to be learned from every World Cup. I fear the ones we are going to be taught may turn out to be very painful.Reuse content