A fascinating few weeks of international rugby drew to a close over the weekend, with the northern hemisphere claiming collective bragging rights over their southern rivals in three dramatic encounters.
England, Wales and France were all triumphant over South Africa, Australia and New Zealand on Saturday respectively, before Ireland rounded out a sweep of the SANZAAR nations with a thumping victory over Argentina.
At the end of a long year, with extended periods of quarantine and bubble life, it's fair to say the southerners may have been lacking a little energy. But there is no hiding from the fact that there are several strong contenders up north, too, which has set up an enthralling run to the World Cup in just under two years' time.
So, on the strength of the rugby over the past few weeks, who exactly should sit atop rugby's rankings? And if a World Cup was starting this week, who would be in the best position to take it out?
1. South Africa
World ranking: 1
Autumn record: 2-1
The Springboks were on the cusp of a clean sweep of their spring tour, only for a final England entry into South Africa's half to bring about an infringement from Frans Steyn. Marcus Smith did the rest from there slotting the match-winning penalty, ensuring an already disappointing week for South African rugby retained its bitter taste. But, at this stage, they remain the team to beat in France in two years' time. In 2021 they defeated the British & Irish Lions, split their Tests with the All Blacks one apiece, before proving too strong for both Wales and Scotland away from home. They have also been without Pieter-Steph du Toit and Cheslin Kolbe for much of the season, while Faf de Klerk missed the spring tour. The Springboks know how to play World Cup rugby, and while ever the "Bomb Squad" is there to be injected off the bench they will remain in Tests until the final whistle.
World Rugby ranking: 3
Autumn record: 3-0
Coming off a poor Six Nations, England really needed to bounce back this November. And after wins over Tonga, Australia and South Africa, coach Eddie Jones has probably quietened his critics, for now, particularly after he brought through young fly-half Marcus Smith. England didn't exactly put Tonga to the sword like many expected, and then took their time to wear down a Wallabies team that had two players sin-binned, but their closing 27-26 victory over the No. 1-ranked Springboks was proof they have the game plan and squad depth to challenge for the Webb Ellis Trophy in two years' time. Jones has freshened the squad with the likes of Smith, fullback Freddie Stewart and hooker Jamie Blamire, while also retaining the key cornerstones of Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Ben Youngs and skipper Owen Farrell. They are in an excellent position to push on over the next two years.
World Rugby ranking: 4
Autumn record: 3-0
Let's hope this isn't another case of Ireland peaking perfectly between World Cups, but such was their superb form during November that that is exactly what their fans will be fearing. Andy Farrell's team smashed both Japan and Argentina, and perhaps produced the performance of the series in defeating the All Blacks 29-20 - and it really wasn't even that close. The intensity, accuracy of execution and passion they displayed in that victory in Dublin needs to be bottled, and then reproduced in France in two years' time. The fact that they put Japan to the sword, and then also walloped Argentina suggests Farrell may have unlocked something with this side. He has one of the best forward packs in international rugby and a nice mixture of experience and rising talent in the backline. Could 2023 be the year Ireland finally shake off their quarterfinal curse?
4. New Zealand
World Rugby Ranking: 2
Autumn record: 2-2
Having been on the road for 12 weeks, the worry was always that New Zealand would be running on empty when it came to the two key Tests of their year. And while they were in both of their final matches of 2021, they were also second-best on both occasions and exposed in key areas of international play. It is clear that this New Zealand team does not boast the unrivalled quality of the 2015 version, and that both Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett, as brilliant as they may be, are not Dan Carter. Coach Ian Foster will no doubt present an exhaustive review of the season, but the unrest about his two-year extension to the World Cup is only growing louder. They will inevitably start RWC 2023 as favourites, but no New Zealander will be feeling particularly upbeat after what the Springboks, Ireland and France did to their three-time World Cup champions in 2021. Only a fool would write the All Blacks off at this point, though, too.
World Rugby Ranking: 5
Autumn record: 3-0
Les Bleus badly needed a commanding performance to round out their November campaign, and that's exactly what they delivered in handing the All Blacks a second straight defeat on Saturday night. Fabien Galthie's side put the pressure on New Zealand early, built a healthy lead, and then survived a second-half comeback, while also producing several instances of breathtaking play. But their struggle to get over Argentina first up in November, and a not-so polished effort against Georgia without some key personnel, sees them sit a little lower than where they might see themselves. But Galthie has so much brilliant talent to work with, including what is potentially the best halves pairing in the game, and they will of course enjoy homeground advantage in two years' time. You should expect further improvement before they host New Zealand in the opening game of RWC 2023.
World Rugby Ranking: 7
Autumn record: 3-1
Having beaten both England and France on the road during the Six Nations, it was imperative Scotland claimed at least one big victim in November. And they did just that by downing Australia, while also taking care of both Tonga and Japan. But it was their defeat by the Springboks which coach Gregor Townsend will be using as a measure of the need for improvement, and consistency, if the Scots are to really go to the next level and be classed as genuine contenders in two years' time. But they were rewarded with the most Lions tourists they have had in years, and at last boast genuine world-class players in Hamish Watson, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg. The reality is, though, that in a pool that also features both South Africa and Ireland, the Scots, at this stage, look like being the team who fails to advance to the quarterfinals.
World Rugby Ranking: 6
Autumn record: 0-3
The past few weeks have perhaps been a bit of a reality check for the Wallabies, and only shone an even stronger spotlight on Rugby Australia's hotly-debated Giteau Law. Three straight losses to finish the year will sting for Australia given the fact they were in all three contests, but really only played well in Cardiff where they toiled for 65 minutes with just 14 men. But the back-to-back victories over the Springboks have given Dave Rennie's team a marker for which they must consistently strive, one they will need to hit again when England visit Australia in July. The Wallabies will also be better for the introduction of a swathe of new talent over the past few years. Settling on the Giteau Law, finding a consistent world-class hooker and landing on a first-choice fly-half will have a huge bearing on whether they can again rise back up the rankings in 2022.
World Rugby Ranking: 8
Autumn record: 2-2
Swatted aside by the All Blacks in a Test that fell outside of the World Rugby window, and thus robbed them of a number of first-choice players, Wales recovered a week later to push the Springboks to the wire. They then defeated both Fiji and Australia, but were aided in those efforts by red cards to their opposition on both occasions, and even periods when they found themselves up against just 13 men. Their inability to put either side away - the Wallabies only with a post-siren penalty - suggest Wayne Pivac's side has plenty of work to do in the run to RWC 2023 when, coincidentally, they will again face both Fiji and Australia. A Six Nations triumph will have satisfied many Welsh fans this year, but it's hard to shake the feeling they are not quite of the same standard of the game's elite.
World Rugby Ranking: 9
Autumn record: 1-2
The Pumas came into their November campaign on the slide after a disastrous Rugby Championship, and a solitary win over a poor Italy has done little to suggest they are capable of rediscovering the form that saw them defeat the All Blacks last year. Conversely, no other nation has served as much time in hotel quarantine as Argentina, and as such they deserve praise for stepping up to fulfil their Test duties over the past two years. The Pumas have also lost the Jaguares Super Rugby team, which was proving a key feeder program for the national team. Coach Mario Ledesma has time to turn his team around and they have landed in a World Cup pool with England and Japan, so a return to the knockout stage is certainly not beyond them.
World Rugby Ranking: 10
Autumn record: 1-2
Having pushed Australia to the final five minutes in October, the Brave Blossoms looked like they might be set for a promising autumn campaign. But they were then promptly thumped by Ireland and pushed all the way by Portugal, before mounting a dogged resistance that saw them push Scotland at Murrayfield. Those results did little to help Japan's push for inclusion in the Rugby Championship; SANZAAR want the Brave Blossoms to achieve consistency in their Test fixtures before they grant them a spot in the tournament. A big pool clash looms against the Pumas in two years' time.