Jonathan Davies: The future might not be quite as All Black as everyone is thinking

Rob Andrew is ideally placed to step forward as front man
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The Independent Online

It says a lot for the prospects of fascinating rugby in 2007 that the World Cup need not overshadow our expections. It might do if we think about it because our thoughts would be inevitably dominated by how strong New Zealand are going to be.

It is difficult to look forward to a foregone conclusion with much anticipation but I am not sure it is that predictable yet. Obviously, the All Blacks are clear-cut favourites but they have been in that position before and managed to fall flat on their faces.

Before we get to the World Cup we have a scenario so full of possibilities that we'd be better advised not to start considering what's going to happen in France until we get nearer to the event.

In the meantime, there's plenty for Europe to get interested in before we begin weighing up the strength of the northern hemisphere's resistance to the challenge from the other side of the world. Both at club and international level there are players and styles that can emerge to change the picture in a positive way.

Even in the five weeks remaining before the Six Nations tournament starts there is much that can be achieved by the countries left shell-shocked by the autumn.

England are in the most urgent need of remedial treatment after their failings against South Africa and Argentina and the messy departure of Andy Robinson. Robinson did not take the problems with him. They are still there and I fear Brian Ashton will have less chance of solving them if he doesn't get better support.

Ashton and Robinson are similar in that neither of them craves attention or is happy in the limelight. I've said before that Rob Andrew is ideally placed to step forward as front man and absorb the media pressure so that Ashton can be protected from the heat while he gets on with the job.

He needs the sort of boost that would be brought by Jonny Wilkinson's return but I doubt if that is realistic before England play their opening Six Nations match against Scotland at Twickenham on 3 February.

But that is where Ashton has been dealt a favourable hand. His first two matches are against Scotland and Italy at home, and two early wins would do so much for confidence. Momentum in the Six Nations is everything and it would not be impossible for them to take off, especially if Wilkinson is back for the later stages.

There's still time for Andy Farrell to attain the level that could make his call-up feasible - and if anyone would give Farrell a chance it would be Ashton.

If England can begin creating self-belief they can muster themselves into a force to be reckoned with. But they must give themselves a chance. It would be unforgivable if they try to hide behind their troubles and say that the World Cup is just part of their rebuilding process. They are the world champions and have a bounden duty to defend it with all the might at their disposal.

France looked in disarray in the autumn and, apart from one or two notable exceptions, their club sides have lost that invincible look. The main problem is a distinct lack of a regular, in-form No 10. When he was over there last season Stephen Jones was the best outside half in France by a mile.

Now he is back in Wales, Jones' place in the Welsh team is under threat from the swiftly emerging James Hook. I was in agreement with Jones keeping his place against New Zealand but I'm not sure he was fit. He is still troubled by injury and if he wasn't fit by February I would take a chance on Hook, who is confident and accomplished. But an outside-half needs to control a game and he hasn't had much opportunity to show that, even at club level.

Ireland deserve to start the Six Nations as favourites. They came fresh and feisty out of the autumn and look a well-rounded team, fully aware of their capability.

There is so much scope and opportunity for sides to grow and develop that I wouldn't worry about the World Cup yet. The All Blacks have floundered before, in 1991, '99 and 2003 especially. They can be challenged physically and South Africa, the last side to beat them, could do that.

Look forward to the New Year, there is hope for everyone.

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