With the November internationals now done and dusted for most teams, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. First up, New Zealand.
The world champions on the face of things have had an excellent transition year, benefiting from both forward planning and the young talent putting their hands up.
Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett have been more than competent in their roles as heirs to Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. Anton Lienert-Brown in midfield has leapfrogged a number of candidates, in the process making him the natural successor to Conrad Smith.
Elliot Dixon at flanker, Scott Barrett in the second row, Liam Squire and Ardie Savea have all impressed, while Israel Dagg has gone through a stellar bounceback year after missing the Rugby World Cup.
Although that doesn’t mean the year has been easy. November has tested New Zealand’s play on the field and seen them dealt plenty of hits off it, labelled as dirty after their win over Ireland in Dublin.
There can be no complaints about the defeat in Chicago to Joe Schmidt’s men; a rare occasion where the All Blacks were outplayed. Otherwise it has felt like business as usual, responding in style by thrashing Italy and even in the notoriously tricky final Test of the year coming out of Paris with another win despite arguably being outplayed.
South Africa and Argentina’s stock has plummeted and the Wallabies wobbled. New Zealand on the other hand at times looked as though no one had left the ship.
Huge credit has to go to Barrett and Dane Coles, the Hurricanes pair both nominated for World Player of the Year and with outstanding claims.
Barrett’s goalkicking needs work ahead of the 2017 Lions tour but his attack has frankly been breathtaking, with nine tries in 13 Tests including the game-clinching intercept try in Paris.
Those moments of brilliance and their regularity, and the same for Coles too, combined with the continued strength of New Zealand’s set-piece are why the All Blacks remain the team to beat. They continue to make the fewest errors and capitalise on the most chances of any Test side.
To finish the Rugby Championship with a maximum 30 out of 30 points reflects their dominance as much as the other teams’ struggles and the quality of attacking rugby they have produced deserves every accolade going.
A series win against the Lions next year still seems like a formality, even if Ireland’s performances this month have suggested that we will certainly see a contest rather than the massacre of 12 years ago.
Home advantage, and the Lions’ schedule, both sit in New Zealand’s favour too. Plus by that stage there may be even more personnel options for Steve Hansen to consider, with Matt Faddes on an upward curve and Nehe Milner-Skudder returning to full fitness, not to mention the return of a certain Sonny Bill Williams.
All in all the world’s number one side are in rude health, the concerns of transitioning from the McCaw-Carter era into the future proving to be of little worth. Their gap on top of the World Rankings between first place and second-placed England remains healthy for a reason.