Jonathan Davies: Reasons to be cheerful? Quite a few, really, unless you happen to be Irish

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The Independent Online

Despite New Zealand going home with the Grand Slam, I think that the home nations will be more encouraged than downcast after the autumn series of internationals - apart, that is, from Ireland.

While the others came out of the action with some positives to build on, the Irish were confronted with problems that are not going to be easily solved in the short term.

You would not say that England were without problems, but at least they have a very clear idea what it is going to take to solve them. They can take confidence from knowing that they can compete with the world's best in possession and territory, even if they are incapable of killing them off.

Being aware of your weaknesses is not quite the same as being able to cure them, but it is a good starting point. They will have realised by now that they were overcomplicated and too lateral behind, and tried to do too many things behind the gain line.

They are not helped by the general standard of play in the Guinness Premiership, where there is a lack of basic skills in the backs because they look for contact rugby and seek to run to where the support is instead of letting the support follow them.

That is why so few backs capable of breaking the gain line are putting their hands up for selection. There is a big case for Josh Lewsey moving to the centre, but it is more a question of getting their attacking shapes and priorities right.

The Welsh were delighted to see their cutting edge sharpening up against Australia last weekend. After the big disappointments against New Zealand and Fiji, the improvement they have shown since has rebuilt their spirit.

They have coped very well with injuries in key positions and have discovered new forces in the prop Chris Horsman and hooker Rhys Thomas. The Welsh pack once more exposed the weakness of the Australians in that department, but they failed to take full advantage by putting the ball into the corners and turning up the pressure. They allowed Australia to stay in the game and, although we cannot complain at the great open match, they could have beaten them far more easily.

Wales have the backbone of a very good side, and if they use their forwards to play a tactical game against England at Twickenham in February it could be a hard test of England's ability to score from distance. It is already well worth looking forward to.

There is no doubt that Scotland are beginning to sort themselves out. They played promisingly in the second half against New Zealand. It all began towards the end of last season, when the Scottish regions improved dramatically, and now it is spreading into the national team.

They are looking comfortable with the way the new coach, Frank Hadden, wants them to play. The previous coach, Matt Williams, tried to fit them into a gameplan that didn't suit. It is hard to know what plan would have suited them, but they obviously weren't happy or confident.

Hadden seems to have more of an understanding of their capabilities and they are responding to his way of thinking. There is still a worrying lack of strength in depth, but they are going to be far more competitive in the Six Nations.

I worry more about the Irish than any of the others. I know they were missing Brian O'Driscoll, but they need far more than his return. The front row look tired, and everywhere the cupboard appears bare. You have only to look at the half-backs. They seem to have been picking between the same four for the past 10 years. There is little coming through.

The French, meanwhile, look more and more formidable. Their autumn games showed that they are really geared up, and the advantage of playing England in Paris is not going to hurt their chances for the title.

But they do not look hot for just the Six Nations; their shadow already looms over the World Cup, which they will host in 2007. They have such a strong squad, and for all the excellence we have just seen from the New Zealanders I don't think that there will be a great difference between the two sides in a year or so.

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