The confusion and delights of unpredictability

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Oh well. So much for theories that the northern hemisphere might be establishing some sort of ascendancy over the south.

Any such thoughts were blown away in the final weekend of the autumn internationals. Not so much by South Africa's 45-10 victory over Scotland, which served merely as an indication of changed scoring values. When the Boks piled up 44 against the Scots in 1951 it went legend, along with a stunned Scot's reflection that 'We were lucky to get nil'. Forty-five in 2004 induces a shrug and 'what else did you expect?'.

But Australia beating England? New Zealand hammering the bejasus out of France? Neither, admittedly, is seismic. But in a straw poll of half a dozen experts in one Saturday paper, most still rated England top nation and none thought Australia higher than fourth. And no opponent habitually occasions New Zealand greater discomfort and downright bemusement than France.

So who are number one? New Zealand is one plausible, and International Rugby Board-sanctioned, answer. But their recent competitive record shows failure in the World Cup and last place in the Tri-Nations.

South Africa won the Tri-Nations but have just lost to Ireland and England. The English finished third in the last Six Nations, whose champions France have just lost at home to the All Blacks and Argentina, but did beat Australia who just beat England.

Confused? Yes, me too, and delighted to be. Uncertainty is good. Heisenberg's principle rocks. Nothing is worse, in a game where only a few nations carry real weight, than the predictability of recent years.

Ratings, much as I am tempted to construct a case for Ireland, do not matter. Whatever they say, England hold the only meaningful world title. It matters still less which hemisphere rules. What counts is that there should be no return to the monotony of the old southern stranglehold.

Uncertainty makes 2005 look as appealing as any non-World Cup year can be. The Lions tour to New Zealand promised much by virtue of location among the most rugby-literate enthusiasts on earth, but now also offers the prospect of spectacular action.

Sir Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson's quest for an outside-half who combines Charlie Hodgson's creativity with Jonny Wilkinson's poise under pressure appears to have found an answer, the bad news for them being that it is Danny Carter, a New Zealander. But at the same time several players - England's Mark Cueto and Martin Corry, Wales's Colin Charvis and Gavin Henson prominent among them - should have played their way not only into the consciousness of Lions selectors but the worries of their All Black counterparts.

We can look forward to a Six Nations championship with three serious contenders - Ireland, France and England, plus a fourth, Wales, that might surprise any of them.

Ireland have most reason to be pleased with their autumn performances. They are mastering the art of winning when they should, vitally important to their chances in a year when both England and France must visit Lansdowne Road. Neither South Africa nor Argentina were beaten heavily, but ability to win the close ones is what makes champions.

That lesson will not be lost on Wales, which has still to make that leap. Moral victories can take you only so far. Yet it is only two years since Wales were slaughtered at home by a New Zealand second team, 15 months since a similar demise against England's reserves. To bemoan a single-point loss to a close-to-full-strength All Black team, to in little more than a year have twice seriously scared both New Zealand and England with the playing style, mixing instinctive improvisation and calculated risk-taking, that has always distinguished Wales at their best, is to reflect real progress. New coach Mike Ruddock also looks to have inserted some badly-needed control, organisation and edge into Welsh forward play. England's opening day Six Nations visit to Cardiff is cause for anticipation rather than trepidation, hope rather than resignation although let's not shout the odds too loudly, OK boys?

England too have reasons to be cheerful. That comprehensive victory over South Africa, the stirring if ultimately thwarted revival against Australia and Andy Robinson's seamless handling of the transition from the Woodward era, introducing new players like Cueto, were all good news.

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