THE END OF the November Test window marks the beginning of the final run in to the 2019 World Cup, with the 20 competing nations left with a handful of games before the tournament gets underway in Japan next September.
For the northern hemisphere nations, it was a hugely encouraging month as Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England all head into the new year with reasons to be optimistic and cheerful ahead of the Six Nations.
Based on the results in recent weeks, the chasm between the north and south appears to have closed and while different factors — such as injuries and the southern hemisphere teams touring Europe at the end of long, hard seasons — must be considered, the 2019 World Cup is shaping up to be the most competitive and intriguing edition in recent times.
Here, we take a closer look at how each of the top 10 teams in the world rankings fared in November, and their current health just 10 months out from the World Cup.
1. New Zealand
The All Blacks rounded off their year with a big win in Rome. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
While still officially top of the World Rugby rankings, Steve Hansen’s assertion that the All Blacks have been knocked off their perch following defeat in Dublin has certainly been bought into by the Kiwi media.
Ireland’s epic victory at the Aviva Stadium has raised questions over the aura of invincibility so long associated with the All Blacks, but the one certainty is that they will come back stronger and more energised next year.
Two defeats in the calendar year, while also failing to score a try in that seismic, match for the ages in Dublin, is otherwise unheard of for the back-to-back world champions, yet 2018 was still a superb season for the All Blacks.
Vastly contrasting victories over Japan and England got their European tour up-and-running, before they rebounded from the loss to Ireland with that 10-try rout of Italy in Rome last Saturday.
For all the talk of a changing of the guard, the All Blacks still recorded 12 wins from their 14 Test matches this year, once again reminding the rugby world they have an innate ability to find a gear opponents simply cannot live with.
They remain strong favourites for a third straight World Cup win in Japan, but it will be fascinating to see how they respond in 2019 ahead of their Pool B opener against the Springboks.
November results: Japan [W], England [W], Ireland [L], Italy [W]
Next fixture: v South Africa [Rugby Championship, 27 July 2019]
World Cup odds: 11/10
Garry Ringrose was superb for Ireland through November. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland
A momentous year rounded off with a November clean sweep and a triple success at Sunday’s World Rugby awards in Monaco, Joe Schmidt’s side are leading the northern hemisphere charge.
Victories over Italy, Argentina, the All Blacks and USA this month moved Ireland to within striking distance of New Zealand at the top of the world rankings, and firmly installed them as genuine contenders heading into Japan.
Ireland have won 18 of their last 19 Test matches, en route to Grand Slam glory, a first tour win in Australia since 1979 and Autumn quadruple, including a famous first home win over the All Blacks.
Furthermore, the defeats of Italy, Argentina and USA underlined the depth chart within Schmidt’s squad, all of which was done without the talismanic Conor Murray, while also coping with injuries to Robbie Henshaw and Sean O’Brien.
Irish rugby has never hit such rarefied heights and there is every reason to be upbeat moving into 2019, starting with the Six Nations defence in February.
November results: Italy [W], Argentina [W], All Blacks [W], USA [W]
Next fixture: v England [Six Nations, 2 February 2019]
World Cup odds: 7/2
Wales recorded a November clean sweep. Source: Mike Egerton
Up to third in the world, Wales are developing rather nicely under Warren Gatland, who has implemented an expansive and exciting game plan which has yielded strong results in recent times.
A first clean sweep of their Autumnal programme was completed with a hard-fought and gritty win over the Springboks in Cardiff on Saturday, adding to their confidence-boosting and momentum-building wins over Scotland, Australia and Tonga earlier in the month.
The 20-11 victory was Wales’ ninth successive Test triumph – a feat they have not achieved since 1999 — while also representing their fourth straight win over the ‘Boks, sending out a strong statement of intent.
Dealing with the loss of Sam Warburton was always going to be a tricky transition for Wales, but they did so seamlessly, showing tangible signs of growth under Gatland and they must be considered contenders in Japan, given their exploits in the last two World Cups.
The leadership and influence of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric is monstrous for Gatland’s side, and as Ireland grab the headlines in this part of the world, Wales are happy to go quietly under the radar.
“We’ve got a good group of players that the Welsh public should be really proud of,” Gatland said.
“We just keep our head down, work hard and start thinking about the Six Nations.”
They’re not the finished product by any stretch of the imagination, and that may just be a powerful formula heading to Japan.
November results: Scotland [W], Australia [W], Tonga [W], South Africa [W]
Next fixture: v France [Six Nations, 1 February 2019]
World Cup odds: 12/1
Can Eddie Jones’ men be considered World Cup contenders? Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
England appear to be back on an upward trajectory again after a rocky period under Eddie Jones’ stewardship, and a strong end to the year suggests they are building positively towards the World Cup.
A fifth-place finish in the Six Nations, followed by a series defeat in South Africa, heaped the pressure on Jones heading into November but his side responded with victories over the Springboks, Japan and Australia, while they pushed the All Blacks all the way and were perhaps unfortunate not to pick up a famous win.
Saturday’s defeat of the Wallabies will leave grounds for optimism and three from four is not a bad return, particularly when Jones managed to increase his squad depth in the absence of the Vunipola brothers among others.
The emergence of Joe Cokanasiga was another standout feature, and the 21-year-old is already being heralded as a real star of the future, with his performance against the Wallabies making people sit up and take notice.
As for Jones, he’s worried about Ireland.
“I’m worried about Ireland,” the head coach said. “They’re the top team in Europe now. We want to be the top team in Europe. It’s pretty simple.”
That Six Nations opener in Dublin next February looks pretty tasty already.
November results: South Africa [W], All Blacks [L], Japan [W], Australia [W]
Next fixture: v Ireland [Six Nations, 2 February 2019]
World Cup odds: 8/1
5. South Africa
It was a mixed month for the Springboks. Source: David Davies
Rassie Erasmus claimed he was one result away from the sack during the Rugby Championship, and then the Springboks went and beat the All Blacks in Wellington. A couple of months later, it’s hard to accurately assess just where South Africa are under the former Munster director of rugby.
November was a mixed bag for the two-time World Cup winners, wins in Paris and Edinburgh coming in between defeats to England and then Wales. There are still many question marks hanging over the ‘Boks, but Erasmus has been able to build a settled squad after much chopping and changing.
Pieter-Steph du Toit and Cheslin Kolbe were two of their best performers and the encouraging thing for the ‘Boks is that they have vast improvements to make in all departments, including adding a cutting edge to their attack.