Six Nations Overview
Published 21/03/2011 | 15:12
The 2011 World Cup kicks off in New Zealand 172 days from now, and what hopes of European success?
Here, rugby union correspondent Andrew Baldock gives an end-of-Six Nations assessment on the leading northern hemisphere challengers.
Ireland showed with their ruthless dismantling of England on the tournament's final weekend that they can still produce world-class performances, but does it happen often enough under coach Declan Kidney?
Brian O'Driscoll, Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip can more than hold their own in any company, while flanker Sean O'Brien is a player with the brightest of international careers ahead of him, and it will be fascinating to see how the World Cup pans out for Ireland.
They are not a revered World Cup force - never have been - and if they don't beat group rivals Australia, then reigning champions South Africa are looming as likely quarter-final opponents. Ireland could beat both, yet they need more than just their talismen to hit top gear.
A first Six Nations title since 2003 proved a deserved prize for Martin Johnson's team, although their final-hurdle failure in chasing a Grand Slam was the fourth time that has happened during rugby union's professional era.
England will arrive at the World Cup as the strongest-equipped British or Irish challenger, and a relatively kind draw could see them progress all the way to another final appearance if they can beat Argentina, Scotland, then probably France and Australia.
Young talent like Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Ben Youngs and Tom Wood must offer Johnson great hope for the future. There is so much more for him to be positive about, rather than negative, after a Six Nations campaign when England won four out of five.
It is the same old question for runners-up France under the eccentric selection approach of coach Marc Lievremont. Will he ever field his strongest team, does he even know what his strongest team is? Questions, questions.
Les Bleus lost to Italy for the first time in Six Nations combat, but they beat Ireland in Dublin and comfortably saw off Wales. The defeat that will seriously worry them was being turned over by England at Twickenham.
France have a miserable World Cup record against England, and the teams are on a quarter-final collision course in little more than six months' time. If that game transpires and France lose it, then one senses Lievremont will be history.
Wales won three successive Six Nations games - including a controversial victory over Ireland - but they lost to England and France and played only in short bursts before displaying mind-numbing predictability against Les Bleus on the final weekend.
Their World Cup group is worrying on paper - not only South Africa, but Samoa and Fiji too - and while Wales should make the quarter-finals, it is not a prospect at this stage that anyone should consider betting their mortgage on.
Coach Warren Gatland has some wonderfully-talented players at his disposal - James Hook, Shane Williams, Jamie Roberts, George North and Sam Warburton, to name just five - but teams have worked them out and they now need to show there is a plan B, C and D.
A tournament of apparent potential for Scotland ended up with them only avoiding the wooden spoon by beating Italy. It was a real curate's egg campaign, as glimpses of quality and grit against France and England were overshadowed by an abysmal Murrayfield no-show against Wales.
Coach Andy Robinson is definitely making strides with the team, even if the erratic nature of their results sometimes suggest otherwise, although the World Cup offers Robinson his biggest test, with England and Argentina in the same group.
Wing Max Evans, lock Richie Gray and flanker John Barclay had impressive Six Nations seasons, but individuals are currently better and more consistent than the collective.
Italy provided probably the highlight of this season's Six Nations with their victory over France in Rome.
They also ran Ireland close and tested Wales, and it was only against England that the Azzurri imploded.
Number eight and captain Sergio Parisse was his usual magnificent self, scrum-half Fabio Semenzato proved a real discovery and Andrea Masi was a repeated threat from full-back or on the wing. Ultimately, the wooden spoon seems a harsh outcome for their efforts.
The World Cup will be difficult for Italy in a pool that includes Australia and Ireland, but with Parisse as skipper and Nick Mallett as coach, they are not going to go down without a fight.