State of the Nation: Rugby Union

ENERGISED by that compelling destruction of Australia at Twickenham, England go into a World Cup year in rude mental and physical health.

The corner appears to have been turned by Martin Johnson's men who showed in the Autumn Internationals they have the fortitude and ability to match the southern hemisphere Tri-Nations who will be the teams to beat in New Zealand this coming September and October.

Mental hurdles have been overcome and fitness-wise they look in good nick, with Tom Croft the only major injury doubt going into a spring Six Nations in which they will fancy their chances with three of their five games to be played at headquarters.

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Jonny Wilkinson's decision to sign a new deal with French club Toulon effectively signals the beginning of the end of one of English rugby's most colourful and great international careers, but there are new names to live and die with; Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Toby Flood.

Wilkinson's exile from England has been hastened by John Steele, the new man at the top of the Rugby Football Union, who since taking office as chief executive in September has begun to gauge the temperature of the nation.

His principle aim is the betterment of the national team, with his decision to end international call-ups for overseas-based players ending Wilkinson's career after the forthcoming World Cup and demonstrating the governing body's intention to be more self-sufficient by the time England hosts the 2015 tournament.

At a more regional level, Steele's vision is to bring the enjoyment back into the game and eliminate the bureacracy that effectively prevents 15 players taking on 15 players on a Saturday afternoon.

At the highest club level, the Premiership teams head into 2011 smarting from a year in which they made little impact on the Heineken Cup.

The debate over raising the 4m salary cap in the top flight is a constant issue, and one that will take on added instensity if for the second year running the French Top 14 – which imposes no such financial restrictions on its clubs – provides the two finalists for Europe's premier competition.

The big English clubs want parity with the French, while Leeds Carnegie will fight any such proposals as they struggle to reach parity even with their fellow Premiership competitors.

Leeds begin 2011 requiring an even better start to the year than they enjoyed in 2010 if they are to be successful in beating the drop again.

Down the divisions, attendances have been hit hard by the cold snap, but in the Championship both Rotherham and Doncaster are closing in on a place in the promotion play-offs, while the priority for Otley and Wharfedale is climbing National One.