LONDON, January 28- A mounting injury list and fluctuating form have left the outcome of the Six Nations shrouded in uncertainty as the tournament prepares to kick off next week with the World Cup looming.
Defending Grand Slam champions France are in disarray after a humiliating 59-16 defeat to Australia in their last Test, while England, Ireland and Wales have all seen their squads decimated by injuries and suspensions.
England have been installed as the bookmakers favourites, but Martin Johnson’s men have a lot to prove after their November international series, which ended with a chastening 21-11 loss to South Africa.
Manager Martin Johnson has also had to contend with injuries to three key forwards, with lock Courtney Lawes, blindside Tom Croft and captain Lewis Moody ruled out of contention for England’s opening game against Wales next Friday.
England, who have not won the Six Nations since Johnson captained the side in 2003, have made steady progress in the past 12 months, with home-and-away wins over Australia the highlight.
Nevertheless Johnson points out that recent form will count for little when the tournament kicks off in Cardiff on February 4.
"It’s a very interesting period for the Six Nations. All the teams have had good performances and indifferent performances," Johnson said.
"I think the autumn showed you any team who gets it right has a chance. Scotland get turned over by New Zealand, then they go and beat South Africa.
"Wales played pretty well against New Zealand. France had a disaster against Australia. But the field’s coming together."
With September’s World Cup in New Zealand looming ever closer, Johnson admits the tournament gives this year’s Six Nations an additional edge.
"We’re focused on the Six Nations but inevitably the World Cup is in people’s minds," he said. "It makes competition just a little bit harder."
While England have shown signs of a resurgence in the past year, rivals France have been sent back to the drawing board after a Jekyll-and-Hyde 2010, which culiminated in the disastrous mauling by the Wallabies in Paris.
"It was a strange year for France," coach Marc Lievremont reflected. "We won the Six Nations but then the last part of the year was a huge catastrophe.
"France wasn’t itself in that match with Australia. We are hoping we can show our true potential in the Six Nations."
Lievremont has responded to the Australia defeat by recalling a raft of experienced veterans, including prop Sylvain Marconnet, winger Vincent Clerc, full-back Clement Poitrenaud and No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy.
Ireland’s preparations meanwhile have been disrupted by a casualty list that means Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe, John Hayes, Shane Horgan, Geordan Murphy, Rob Kearney and Jerry Flannery will miss all or part of the tournament.
Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll says the injury toll is symptomatic of the brutal nature of modern rugby.
O’Driscoll, who will be playing in his 12th straight Six Nations, is in no doubt that the tournament has become progressively more demanding over the course of a career that has spanned more than 100 Test caps.
"The Six Nations has definitely got harder over the years. The game has become harder, more physical, more demanding," O’Driscoll said.
"If you asked 100 players in the Six Nations how many of them were 100 percent fit, 99 would say they had some niggle and the other person would be a liar," the 32-year-old centre added.
Wales’ injury problems have accounted for their first choice props Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, who join centres Tom Shanklin and Andrew Bishop on the casualty list.
Scotland’s hopes meanwhile will hinge on whether they are able to reproduce the sort of form that saw upset South Africa 21-17 at Murrayfield last year.
Scotland coach Andy Robinson has made consistency the watchword for his team, who open their game with a daunting trip to France, whom they have only beaten in Paris twice since 1969.
"If you look through history Scotland have always been able to produce one-off performances. What we want is to be able to do it week after week," said Robinson.
History suggest Italy will be doing little more than making up the numbers, with the Azzurri having scored just seven wins in 55 Six Nations matches.
"Our aims are always the same. We must attempt to win every game but we’re not arrogant enough to think we can," said Italy’s coach Nick Mallett.