New Zealand will end another stellar year as rugby’s undoubted No.1 team but the gap between northern and southern hemisphere nations has shrunk considerably after a month of unprecedented success for Europe.
Following the northern hemisphere’s humiliation at last year’s World Cup, when they failed to supply one semi-finalist in a tournament played in Britain, the southern nations have been hunted down and picked off with rare frequency in 2016.
The scoreboard between the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship reads 8-6 to the Europeans, with just England against Australia to come on Saturday.
That turnaround does not seem to be a flash in the pan either.
Ireland’s notable victory over New Zealand meant that they have beaten the southern Big Three in the same year for the first time.
England are seeking a fourth successive victory over the Wallabies while Italy and Wales secured historic wins over an ailing South Africa, and Argentina lost to Scotland, Wales and England.
The lesson from Ireland’s 40-29 win over the All Blacks in Chicago was the value of ambition. For 80 minutes New Zealand were harried into mistakes and they buckled under the pressure.
The All Blacks restored order two weeks later by beating up the Irish – some would say literally – in Dublin, but they are no longer the sport’s invincibles and last week France ran them close before going down 24-19 in Paris.
Of course, a clash with England would have rounded the year off nicely, but Twickenham will have to wait at least another year for that one.
More immediately, the 2017 Six Nations looks like being extra-competitive with Vern Cotter’s Scotland improving rapidly after two autumn wins, France gloriously unpredictable as ever and Italy buoyed by their greatest victory, over South Africa.
Fittingly, the two most impressive European performers this year – England and Ireland – meet in the tournament’s 15th and final match in what will be a thunderous atmosphere in Dublin.
Some observers believe rugby’s pecking order has been skewed by Argentina’s entry into the Rugby Championship, which has increased the competitive load on southern hemisphere teams and caused their performances to dip by the end of the year.
Although that did not stop southern teams peaking for the 2015 World Cup, which was played in October, Argentina certainly appear to be suffering from their entry into Super Rugby with their players spending half of 2016 on the move and many taking more than 50 long-haul flights.
South Africa have less of an excuse for poor form after a woeful year in which they lost eight Tests.
Allister Coetzee has the lowest winning record ever for a first-year Springbok coach at 33 per cent and may not survive the fallout from the promised review.
Even with a new man in place, however, it is difficult to see the lumbering and uninspired Boks bouncing back for a while.
Michael Cheika’s Wallabies also have work to do, having seen their grand slam hopes disappear in Dublin after squeezing past a Scotland side who find ever more improbable ways to lose to them.
Memories of their Twickenham demolition of England in the World Cup a year ago will no doubt lift Australia, as will the fighting talk of Eddie Jones.
The Wallabies will have the perfect opportunity to confirm their revival, although they must deny their compatriot and former coach Jones a perfect end to 2016 with England’s 13th successive victory.