Reason: Six Nations shows gap to ABs closing

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 19/03/2014

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OPINION: The 2015 World Cup will be the most open in the history of the competition.

For nearly five years now, the All Blacks have been comfortably ahead of the game. But all the signs from the Six Nations indicate that the gap is shrinking fast.

New Zealand, of course, have never won a World Cup overseas and the task is not about to get any easier.

An unhelpful draw means that the All Blacks will cruise through the pool stage unchallenged and then be battered by the best that the northern and southern hemispheres can put up against them.

If it pans out on current form, the All Blacks would face France in the quarter, South Africa in the semi and England or Ireland in the final. Daunting.

But even if results go the other way, a run to the title of Ireland, Australia and Wales would be far from straightforward.

Normally only four teams have any real chance of winning the World Cup, but in 2015 seven nations could make a good case for at least getting to the final.

New Zealand will get a good look at England in June, but Steve Hansen and his coaching staff will presumably have been taking in plenty of other information from the Six Nations.

Here are some of the things that they may have learned.

ENGLAND

Twelve months ago England scraped home against Italy at Twickenham, unable to score a try. On Saturday they put 50 points on the Azurri.

This team appears to be growing up fast, although they will do well to win even one test in New Zealand this winter.

To put the task in perspective the Lions have won two of the previous 14 tests against the All Blacks and England will be seriously under strength for the opening test due to player unavailability because of the Premiership final.

Strengths: Power. Led by a young, strong and mobile group of forwards England often dominate the gain line. They have serious strength in depth in the pack, with three Lions not even featuring for them in the Six Nations.

Owen Farrell rarely misses goal kicks, Mike Brown is currently the best fullback in the world and several immensely powerful ball carriers get England trundling.

Coach Stuart Lancaster has a big set of ears and is prepared to learn from people all over the world, including here in New Zealand.

Ian McGeechan picked England to win one of the three upcoming tests against the All Blacks.

I am not sure I agree, but they will be a big test for New Zealand's front five.

Weaknesses: The wings are rookies and look very vulnerable in defence. The standard of passing in midfield, particularly going left to right, is often risible.

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A lack of cover defence can leave England vulnerable to the chip in behind. And you still wonder about the temperament of one or two, particularly in the backs.

Brown has an arrogant streak, Farrell gets involved in too many spats and Danny Care is a work in progress. The last two times England were in New Zealand they behaved like hoons. You wonder how much they have really grown up.

IRELAND

Deserved Six Nations champions, can Ireland finally get past a World Cup quarter-final? They may just be the best coached international team in the world right now and should have beaten the All Blacks last year.

Age is a worry. Paul O'Connell, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Jamie Heaslip and Gordon D'Arcy will have an average age of 33 should they make it to the World Cup. That goes against the winning grain, with so many big games so close together.

Strenghts: Joe Schmidt is coaching a team who can play in several different ways according to the weaknesses of the opposition. The defence was comfortably the stingiest in the Six Nations averaging just 10 points a game.

There are not many weak links.

Weaknesses: Goal kicking is a big concern. Jonathan Sexton missed a sitter against France, just as he did against New Zealand. The first-five is a very fine player, but he needs more consistency in the big games.

The age of some is a worry and the retirement of Brian O'Driscoll will make 13 a daunting number for his replacement.

WALES

There looked to be a hangover from the Lions tour, and the early sending off of Stuart Hogg meant that the thrashing of Scotland flattered Wales. But they should come of age at the World Cup and will be a hard team to knock over.

Strengths: A huge backline from 11-14 would threaten any defence. The goal kicking is immaculate, the back row turns over a lot of ball.

Weaknesses: Ireland exposed the defence of the front five and showed up the left wing with a kicking barrage. The game plan can be predictable and their record against the southern hemisphere is awful.

FRANCE

There is still a mass of playing talent in France and you wonder if one or two might be persuaded out of retirement for the World Cup. If France have a new coach by then.

Strengths: Brice Dulin, Yoann Huget, Wesley Fofana, Gael Fickou, Maxime Medard, Francois Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra, Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Nicolas Mas, Yoann Maestri, Pascal Pape, Yannick Nyanga, Thierry Dusautoir, Louis Picamoles.

Weaknesses: Coach Philippe Saint-Andre.

- Fairfax Media

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