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Gloom descends on Europe

PARIS, November 29- Those hoping for only a second northern hemisphere victory in the rugby World Cup next year will, on the basis of what transpired in the now concluded autumn test matches, travel more in hope than expectation.French travel agents will be fearing the backlash after the high of the Six Nations Grand Slam earlier in the year raised genuine optimism for at last lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in New Zealand next October.

That sentiment has now been replaced with deep pessimism as they ended the year with a 59-16 drubbing by Australia.

Head coach Marc Lievremont looked shellshocked and was right to do so as his side succumbed to a second drubbing in a matter of months – having gone down 41-13 to Argentina in Buenos Aires in June.

However, the 42-year-old insisted that he would not step away from the job and would battle to set matters right with the two-time World Cup finalists.

"I take full responsibility for this failure but I repeat, I am hungry to carry on," said the former France backrow forward, who played in the 1999 World Cup final defeat to Australia.

"I am not sure that Pierre, Paul or Jacques could do better, even if they did it differently.

"I’m still convinced that we are going about things the right way in terms of management, managing the squad, and strategy."

Their predecessors as Grand Slam champions Ireland also have proved no great advertisement for winning the prestigious title and look old and tired though they rounded off their campaign with victory over an old nemesis Argentina – the 2007 semi-finalists looking as if their best years are behind them.

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Despite this Irish coach Declan Kidney saw an encouraging picture developing.

"We’d a number of objectives, one was to build a squad, and after a four games series, we saw today everybody buying into it," said Kidney, who nevertheless admitted there was a lot of work to do.

Wales had their moments against world champions South Africa and the All Blacks but ended up beaten by both and allied to a draw against Fiji – stretching their winless streak to seven tests – leaves them with a lot of work to do ahead of the finals.

Certainly Welsh coach Warren Gatland is looking at the glass being half full and not half empty.

"There is a massive amount to take forward. Our pack has gone well against Australia and South Africa and did well again tonight (against the All Blacks).

"We have some key players that aren’t available in our backs with regards to Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Shane Williams," added Gatland.

Scotland can be reasonably happy to have bounced back from the 49-3 humbling by the All Blacks to beat the Springboks and edged the resilient Samoans – who put up good fights against both Ireland and England – to give coach Andy Robinson something solid to work on.

Italy huffed and puffed but all that will be remembered of their autumn series will be their highly-rated coach Nick Mallett having angrily to defend himself and his record, which is far from dreadful given the paucity of resources at his disposal.

However, it is England who of all the northern hemisphere countries come out of the year looking as if they might once again be the standard bearers at the sport’s global showpiece after two victories – including a brilliant display against Australia – and two defeats.

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England manager Martin Johnson – who captained England to their memorable 2003 triumph over Australia in Sydney – has fashioned a good mix of youth and elder statesmen together and can look forward to the Six Nations with justifiable optimism and as using it as a further base for moulding a formidable unit.

Johnson remains sanguine over the progress that has been made and still remains.

"We’ve done a huge amount of good stuff in this series. The guys will come away from every game knowing that, win or lose, they can go and compete and play with these teams.

"They’re disappointed with what they’ve done today (Saturday’s defeat by South Africa) and right now we’re pretty glum. But I think when we come together on Monday and start thinking about it in terms of the future there’s lots and lots of good things come out.

"With all these young guys almost whatever happens on the field they will get better from it."

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