Southern teams hold autumn supremacy
Cardiff Central railway station early on a Sunday morning in November, freezing rain coming in sideways on a gale off the bay, the only colour for miles around the cherry-red signs on the Brains brewery, is one of the less uplifting places to begin your day.
But while the majority of huddled travellers looked as happy as naturists at the North Pole, the small pockets of gold-shirted Australia fans were wearing smiles as bright as Bondi bikinis.
Even as the rain turned to sleet and the grey clouds descended even lower overhead, you could understand their optimism. After a tempestuous few weeks, their team is heading for sunnier times. If only the same could be said of all the northern hemisphere teams.
Thank heavens for the rays of sunshine coming from Ireland. Without the stirring deeds of Declan Kidney's men in Dublin, this autumn would have been a bleak one indeed for the Six Nations teams.
A totting-up of the Test tallies from this month provides initial optimism. Of the 18 matches between northern and southern hemisphere teams, the north won nine, lost eight and drew one. Narrow it down to home nations vs the southerners and it appears almost cheery - seven wins to five defeats.
Take an inexperienced Samoa and Fiji and an under-strength Argentina out of the frame, however, and the outlook is rather gloomier. In 11 matches between Six Nations and Tri-Nations teams, the south comes out on top by seven wins to three. In eight matches between the home nations and the big three, the north came out on top just twice.
Then there's the way the points have been scored. Six Nations sides have managed just four tries between them in 11 matches against the Tri-Nations teams, while their opponents have run in 23. In a combined five hours and 20 minutes against the Wallabies and All Blacks, England and Wales failed to score a single try. On one side a drought, on the other a flood.
If that's enough to have you manning the lifeboats, keep your feet on the turf for the time being. Grim while those stats are - and that try tally is the very definition of the word - there are happier portents lurking in the murk.
This might be a slightly contrary way of approaching it, but the home nations weathered worse a year ago. In 2008, the Six Nations v Tri-Nations scoreboard read played 20, lost 19. This time around, Ireland's win at Croke Park on Saturday made it three wins on the bounce over the Springboks in Dublin. France rumbled the world champions off their perch and Scotland beat Australia for the first time in 27 years.
Even amongst the deluge of opposition points, the forecast was upbeat. A straw poll of the Wales players in the Millennium Stadium on Saturday night produced a defiant message - the gulf in class between the hemispheres is not as wide as it might appear.
"I think it's narrowing," said Stephen Jones. "I know that's hard to back up with the way we played against the Wallabies, but we're much better than that."
James Hook concurred. "I don't think there's a big difference," he said. "Obviously the performance on Saturday showed there was, but overall I'm not sure there is. Australia showed that they were right at the top of their game, and we had a big dip. Against New Zealand we were almost there."
"The game is changing, and northern hemisphere rugby is catching up," reckons Jamie Roberts.
Not everyone who watched the game shared that sunny disposition. A large section of the crowd at the Millennium Stadium booed their side off, while in the concrete bowels of the ground afterwards, both Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards looked as stormy-faced in their press conference as Martin Johnson had in a month of his at Twickenham.
Going into the Australia match Edwards had described it as a "pivotal" occasion, likening Wales' series of matches against the Tri-Nations teams in the next 12 months to those won by Clive Woodward's England in the build-up to the 2003 World Cup. Afterwards, he was unable to disguise the magnitude of his disappointment.
The Wales players troop dejectedly off the Millennium Stadium pitch after the defeat by Australia
"This is my worst day with Wales so far," he admitted, and Gatland did not disagree with him. Since the pair inspired their charges to that famous Grand Slam in 2008, Wales have lost to South Africa three times, New Zealand twice and also suffered reverses against France, Ireland and Australia. Their biggest scalp in the whole of 2009 was England at home, and that's hardly the badge of honour it once was.
Australia had arrived in Cardiff fearing their eighth defeat of the year, which would have matched the worst-ever seasons in their 110-year history. Despite that, Wales' 34-year wait for back-to-back wins over the Wallabies goes on.
So what do the Six Nations sides need to do to match their Tri-Nation counterparts?
"In the modern game, the aerial battle and the breakdown are such a massive part of things," says Edwards, "and on Saturday we were second-best in both. Every single one of their tries came from a turnover. On top of that, the Australian defence was magnificent, while some of our tackling in the first half was very disappointing."
"The southern hemisphere teams are more clinical," says Hook. "When they're in your half they score points, and that was the nail in the coffin for us this autumn."
"They are faster than us to the breakdown," said Jones. "The intensity at the contact area," says Roberts. "In the leagues we play in, it is nowhere as intense."
What of key injuries to the northern Six Nations sides? Much has been made of England's 40% injury rate, but on Saturday Wales were without five main men at the start - Ryan Jones, Mike Phillips, Adam Jones, Lee Byrne and Gavin Henson - and by the end had lost three more Lions in Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Matthew Rees.
"I'm not sure it would have made a vast difference," former Wales scrum-half Robert Jones told BBC Radio 5 Live. "Wales were slower all over the pitch. Australia showed that despite their defeat last week they deserve to be in the world's top three, and have set the bar high in terms of their attacking ability and keeping the ball. They've got major threats all over the park."
Where the northern hemisphere teams have had success this autumn, they have thrived in the areas where Edwards identifies Wales fell short - Scotland's heroic, indefatigable defence against the Wallabies, Rob Kearney's glorious gobbling of every high ball Morne Steyn sent his way in Dublin and Jonathan Sexton's commensurate kicking cool, France's old-fashioned forward domination of the tired-looking Springboks.
That Scotland and France suffered such rude reverses to Argentina and New Zealand this weekend only highlights the work Andy Robinson and Marc Lièvremont have ahead of them.
The optimism engendered by that Murrayfield win over the Wallabies was punctured by a Pumas team so underpowered that half their squad have less than 10 caps each, and Les Bleus de 2009 remain a case study of inconsistency - beating the All Blacks in their own backyard, thrashed by England, turning over South Africa and then shipping five tries to a New Zealand side who had looked competent but far from free-running in their other autumnal action.
For these embattled northern hemisphere coaches, Ireland's accomplishments provide a blueprint to be studied.
There is the careful blooding of young talent over the past 12 months (take note, Martin Johnson), a self-perpetuating self-assurance born of success with club and country and a speed of thought and deed that casts an unflattering light over some of their Six Nations counterparts.
While some of the Lions players have come back from South Africa heavy of foot and short of form, Ireland's - Heaslip, Kearney, O'Connell and O'Driscoll in particular - returned with the deep-seated conviction that the southern hemisphere teams are within reach.
Match their physicality, Kearney says, give as good as you get at the breakdown, and convert pressure to points. The outlook needn't be quite as bleak as the last month might suggest.