The race to secure Europe's two direct places at Rugby World
Cup 2011 in New Zealand resumes this weekend with European Nations
Cup matches in Russia, Georgia and Romania.
Georgia and Russia currently occupy the two coveted spots at the halfway stage of the top tier; positions which would see them qualify for RWC 2011 as Europe 1 and Europe 2 to join Pool B and Pool C respectively.
The RWC 2011 dream will still be alive for the side finishing third as they will face either Lithuania or the Division 2A winner to become Europe's representative in the cross-continental play-off to decide the final qualifier.
Portugal lie third with 12 points, only two points behind leaders Georgia and one adrift of Russia, their opponents in Sochi on Saturday. Romania (nine) and Spain (seven) still also harbour their own qualification dreams.
Of this quintet, only Russia have never graced the Rugby World Cup stage, Georgia having played in 2003 and 2007, Romania an ever present, Spain in back 1999 and Portugal in 2007.
That, though, is a statistic the Russians hope to address over the next six weeks with Howard Thomas, Vice President of the Rugby Union of Russia, admitting that qualification was "singularly the most important thing on our horizon".
World Cup targets for Russia
"Qualification for Rugby World Cup 2011, the first time in Russia's history, would be significant for Russian rugby," Thomas told Total Rugby.
"Russia understands, the government understands the stature of the sport and for the national team to be able to perform on that stage would be incredibly significant … we want to set a pathway to become a major rugby playing nation.
"We have got a detailed strategic plan and so far I think we are doing a good job of sticking to it. It is challenging, and we want to be a top 12 rugby playing nation by 2015 and we want to reach the quarter final of Rugby World Cup 2019."
Steve Diamond is adamant, though, that Russia are not content merely to become the 25th nation to play in Rugby's showpiece tournament and points out that direct qualification could set up an intriguing fixture for his charges.
"Qualification for the 2011 World Cup is really important and not just to get there. We don't want to get beaten 100-0 by the sides once we get there, the strategic plan is to go and be competitive against similar nations," explained Diamond.
"So a great fixture, for example, if we go through in our current position, we would play the United States (in Pool C). There would be no bigger fixture in Russia on TV than the former USSR playing the USA.
"Living here for 18 months, you realise it (Russia) is such a nationalist country where when the national team of any sport shows any promise, then the whole country gets behind them.
"I think that to get on the World Cup stage the country would be behind them."
Tough challenges ahead
Russia's first challenge to realise their World Cup dream is this weekend's visit of Portugal, who made their debut at France 2007 after beating Uruguay by a point on aggregate in the Répechage.
Twelve months ago Russia ran out 18-14 winners in Lisbon, although they needed a 70th minute penalty from Victor Motorin to ensure victory after Portugal fought back from a 15-0 half-time deficit with tries from Gonçalo Foro and Pedro Leal.
This is Portugal's only loss in the European Nations Cup 2010 thus far as Tomaz Morais' side went on to draw 20-20 with Georgia - the only side to take points off the Lelos - before beating Germany, Spain and Romania.
This was despite Morais and many of his players constantly switching between Sevens and fifteens in February and March with participation in the IRB Sevens World Series, the Rugby World Cup Sevens and the European Nations Cup.
This time around and with World Cup qualification within their grasps, Portugal will not suffer that same problem with separate groups of players for Sevens and fifteens to avoid tiredness and the difficulties of switching between the two.
The battle for Rugby World Cup 2011 qualification is not only between Russia and Portugal with Spain's visit to the stadionul National Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest on Saturday the other standout European Nations Cup match of the weekend.
Romania are currently on a 12-match winning streak against Spain, the most recent a 19-10 victory in Madrid a year ago thanks to Valentin Poparlan's try seven minutes from time. Spain's only win was 6-0 in their capital back in April 1992.
Defending European Nations Cup champions Georgia are expected to beat Germany in Tbilisi, their visitors yet to record a victory on their return to the top tier after nearly two decades away and having lost 38-5 to the Lelos in Heidelberg.
World Rankings points at stake
However, Rugby World Cup 2011 qualification is not all that is at stake this weekend with changes on the cards in the IRB World Rankings with all six sides separated by only nine places with Russia in 17th and Germany 26th.
Russia climbed above Georgia - albeit only by mere thousandths - after beating Namibia 30-15 away a fortnight ago and they will both remain unchanged even with victories by more than 15 points over Portugal and Germany.
The Romanians can improve their rating with victory over Spain, although only by a maximum of just over two tenths. A 13th straight loss to Romania will see Spain fall one place to 23rd, swapping places with Namibia, regardless of the margin.
Romania will only improve their position of 19th if they win and Russia and/or Georgia both lose on home soil by more than 15 points, a smaller margin could see the three sides separated by mere hundredths in the IRB World Rankings.
On the other hand, Romania could slip to a new low in the rankings if they lose to Spain by more than 15 points, although this would also require Portugal to overcome Russia by a similar margin in Sochi.
Portugal will return to the Top 20 in the event of victory in Russia at the expense of Uruguay, whose own RWC 2011 dream lives on as they await the HSBC Asian Five Nations runner up in the cross-continental play-offs later this year.
Spain could also climb above Uruguay, although only if they beat Romania by more than 15 points. With Germany trailing Korea by two rating points, they must beat Georgia by more than 15 points if they are to climb to a new high of 24th.
Whatever happens this weekend though there are bound to be more changes over the next six weeks before the European Nations Cup concludes with Georgia v Russia in Turkey, Portugal v Romania in Lisbon and Germany v Spain in Heidelberg.
The IRB World Rankings update every Monday at 12:00 UK time.