Power Ranking the World's Top 10 National Teams
As we head into the last round of autumn fixtures, you can't help but wonder whether anything served up by Wales and Australia in Cardiff will come close to what we saw in Dublin on Sunday.
Ireland and New Zealand put on a classic.
For the neutral, it's hard to wonder whether the ruination of a perfect year for New Zealand would have been any more disappointing than seeing Ireland come so close to a famous win and fall just short.
It has certainly whetted the appetite for the Six Nations.
Here's how they stack up.
Italy would have hoped for more from their autumn series.
A win against an undisciplined Fiji is all they have to show after a hammering by Australia and a defeat to Argentina.
With the miserable year the Pumas have endured, Italy would have hoped to get one over on Argentina in Rome, but they still lack the cutting edge to make the most of the possession their pack provides.
The Pumas will be glad to see the back of 2013, but at least they ended on a high note.
They will always hold their own when it comes to the set piece, but they need to find that spark behind the scrum they once had in abundance.
The Pumas possess sharp, nippy wingers like Lucas Amorosino and forthright centres such as Saracens man Marcelo Bosch.
The makings of a good back line are there, and it is now coach Daniel Hourcade's job to fashion them into a winning one.
Scotland came close to a third straight win over Australia at Murrayfield, but their cutting edge was missing again, and they went down 21-15.
Under Scott Johnson they have improved, finishing third in the Six Nations, but that attacking bite still evades them.
As David Ferguson of The Scotsman explains, the higher skill and greater quality belonged to Australia.
Scotland's pack is shaping up nicely with the likes of Jim Hamilton and Dave Denton leading the charge. They just need to be more clinical when the opportunities arise.
How many times have we been left frustrated by French national sides?
Their talent—and the depth of it—is obvious, but they so seldom perform to their maximum.
Compare France’s last three matches with Ireland’s display on Sunday.
In patches against New Zealand, France looked excellent, but for the rest of the time they seemed hardly bothered to extend themselves to the boundaries of their ability.
Ireland, to a man, wrung every last drop of endeavour from themselves against New Zealand.
So, brave but blunt defeat to New Zealand, turgid victory over Tonga and drudgery in a bashing from the Boks adds up to a miserable 2013 for Les Bleus.
If Wales can knock the Aussies down a peg or two in Cardiff, they will have salvaged a tangible benefit from their autumn.
They might jump up this list too.
For the time being, wins against Argentina and Tonga won't linger in the memory, so here they are in sixth, winning one more so far than Ireland but coming nowhere near the performance heights the Irish touched on Sunday.
A rare win against one of the Southern Hemisphere giants will give Warren Gatland’s injury-hit squad a major boost.
With all their big guns back and firing in time for the Six Nations, Wales will be a handful for anyone.
The IRB rankings have Wales in fifth position, but who have they really beaten this autumn?
On the strength of their wonderful Six Nations, they remain high on the official list, but a raft of injuries and uninspiring performances against South Africa in defeat and Argentina and Tonga in victory hardly set the world on fire.
Ireland have been on a roller coaster this month, beating Samoa, crumbling against Australia but then delivering one of the all-time great performances against New Zealand.
For that, they get bumped up.
After showing the level they are capable of against the All Blacks, Joe Schmidt now knows this mix of the departing golden generation and the influx of young blood is capable of greatness.
Before O’Connell and O’Driscoll sail into the sunset, this particular group of Irish players could seize the moment and give them some Six Nations silverware to send them on their way.
If only they could bottle that first 20 minutes.
England fall below the Wallabies as their players returned to domestic action last weekend.
In a mixed bag of flashes of quality and long patches of mediocrity, they are still searching for the right combinations in midfield and halfback.
One thing that will not help their cause before the next World Cup is if their players are frozen out of top-level European Club Rugby.
The English seem to have been outmanoeuvered in the latest development with the news that the other five unions have reached agreement to continue in the Heineken Cup, while Premier Rugby forge ahead with plans for their own new tournament.
Who are they going to play? Each other?
If England’s best men are left kicking their heels while the rest of Europe does battle, they will lose out on a heavy helping of high-octane rugby, and that will dull their instincts at the top level.
Australia’s grueling schedule finally reaches its end in Cardiff next weekend.
You could argue that, but for two slightly questionable refereeing decisions at Twickenham, they would be gunning for a Grand Slam tour.
They were harshly treated by the decision to allow Mike Brown to play on and launch an England attack when he had clearly stepped onto the touchline in the act of catching a kick.
And Owen Farrell’s try that sunk them was allowed to stand when he used the sizeable bulk of Dylan Hartley to shield himself from a Wallaby defender and skate home untouched.
As dire as Australia looked against England, the rub of the green was not theirs that day, and they have improved to beat Italy out of sight, dismantle Ireland and see off Scotland last weekend in a 21-15 win.
Crisis? What crisis?
2. South Africa
The Springboks’ tour of the Northern Hemisphere yielded three wins from three.
Wales, Scotland and France were dealt with in unspectacular, but clinical, style by Heyneke Meyer’s men.
Their 19-10 win in Paris, on a pitch described by Planet Rugby as "shoddy", was just reward for their efforts in a stodgy encounter.
The Boks are capable of throttling everyone but the All Blacks, it would seem, but they need to hone their attacking skills if they are to match their nemeses next year.
1. New Zealand
The All Blacks came perilously close to seeing their perfect year go up in green, white and gold smoke in Dublin.
Their 24-22 win over Ireland was secured with Aaron Cruden’s conversion of Ryan Crotty’s 82nd-minute try to make it 14 wins from 14 contests this year.
Even with the last-gasp nature of this victory, it is hard to term the result lucky. Steve Hansen’s men fought their way back from 19-0 and then 22-7.
It proves that, allied to their wonderful attacking talent and powerful forwards, they have forged an iron will that pulls them through tough situations.
Luck doesn’t even come into Jonny Sexton’s late missed penalty that would have sealed the deal for Ireland. He wasn’t composed or accurate enough when it mattered.
The All Blacks were.
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