Scottish revival makes for mouth-watering Six Nations
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Nobody was left in any doubt about which team sits atop the world rugby pecking order, New Zealand's clinical finishing and robust defence in their November campaign once again proving they are streets ahead of their rivals.
But the Six Nations promises to be a hotly contested tournament as Ireland and Scotland wrapped up their November outings in style and threaten to match the might of England.
The November series was a mixed bag for Wales, however, and a catastrophe for both France and Italy.
The All Blacks blooded a host of players little known in the Northern Hemisphere as they won all five of their tour games, although they were made to graft by Scotland (22-17).
The Welsh dominated the first half in their 18-33 defeat to Steve Hansen's men, but were unable to convert pressure into points and the 64-year, 30-Test wait for a win over the world champions went on.
"Gone are the days that the All Blacks would put out a second-string side against a Wales or a Scotland and comfortably win the game," said Wales coach Warren Gatland, who led the British and Irish Lions to a 1-1 series draw against New Zealand in June/July.
"There's still a gap but I'd like to think it's closing a little bit."
Scotland were undoubtedly the stand-out team of November, Gregor Townsend's side backing up their close defeat by New Zealand with a thrilling demolition of a 14-man Australia, the last team to have beaten the All Blacks.
"There's been a lot of positivity around Scottish rugby. A lot of hard work's gone in at a number of levels over the last few years and it's great to get that win against the current number three team in the world," Townsend said.
"We've just got to build on this and make sure this energy, enjoyment and hard work keeps on going.
"Our next three games [against Wales, France and England] are really going to test us. Those three are excellent teams but we've got to go into the Six Nations with real confidence that we can do well."
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, whose team won three from three in November, posting a record 38-3 win over South Africa before edging Fiji (23-20) and beating Argentina (28-19), insisted that he would not be experimenting at the Six Nations with fresh faces ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
"The Six Nations is such a tough title to get," said Schmidt. "In the Six Nations you are obliged to go as hard as you can because you still need your top selection as they need to build their fluidity and confidence."
Ireland travel to France for their opening Six Nations game, and the hosts at the Stade de France have a lot of restructuring to do after finishing their November series with three losses and one draw, against Japan.
Veteran coach Guy Noves now enjoys the unenviable record of 14 defeats and a draw from his 22 matches in charge, the side's worst win-ratio in almost 50 years.
Noves, however, told AFP he would not consider stepping down, insisting he was "optimistic" about getting Les Bleus back on track.
"There's neither depression nor worry," Noves said. "I'm well aware of the period we're going through. I know some of the reasons for it but I don't really want to list them because otherwise they'll say I'm complaining."
While Hansen starred with the All Blacks and Gatland the Lions, it was England's Eddie Jones who was named coach of the year by World Rugby.
Jones' only defeat in 2017 came against Ireland in the final game of last season's Six Nations, denying England a Grand Slam and halting his winning run since taking the job at 17 Tests.
After beating the Pumas, Australia and Samoa over the last month, Jones' record as England coach now reads 22 wins from 23 Tests.
"I'm excited about the Six Nations as we've got a chance to create history," the Australian said.
"Every side wants to beat us. Whether they're playing here at Twickenham or away, this is their big game of the Six Nations."
Gatland added: "With where all the teams are, it's going to be one of the closest Six Nations that we have had for a long time."
Italy, however, look sure bets for the wooden spoon.
They won their opening November Test against Fiji but further losses to Argentina (15-31) and South Africa (6-35) meant that under Conor O'Shea, who took over as coach in March 2016, Italy have won only four of 22 Tests and three of those were against tier-two nations.