Despite Lions draw, All Blacks maintain 'gap'
New Zealand, led magnificently by playmaker Beauden Barrett, continue to lead the pack in their bid for an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup, although they were held to a drawn series by the British and Irish Lions.
In the highlight of the rugby calendar for 2017, Steve Hansen's All Blacks fought out an epic 1-1 draw with the Lions, coached by Wales' Warren Gatland.
"It's come down to the wire and we've ended up with one hand on the trophy each, which is a bit like kissing your sister," Hansen said of the final result.
Talks of a downturn in rugby-obsessed New Zealand accelerated after the team were beaten 23-18 by Australia in a pulsating Bledisloe Cup match in October.
A fresh hole pierced in the world champions' aura of invincibility? Not really, they rebounded to go on a five-game winning tour of the Northern Hemisphere in November.
"If we'd won that Lions series rather than drawn it probably people wouldn't be so down in the mouth," Hansen said.
"It would appear this is a year we're finding out about ourselves."
With fly-half legend Dan Carter heading off into a final swansong in Japan, Hansen has cleverly introduced a number of up-and-coming, little-known players into the All Black set-up and arrived for the November Tests with an enlarged squad of 43.
Younger players were blooded. They didn't let Hansen down, and the rest of the rugby world looked on in astonishment at the adept grooming of the youngsters, best epitomised by free-scoring winger Rieko Ioane, still just 20.
Gatland, in his guise as Wales coach, said: "There's still a gap, but I'd like to think it's closing a little bit."
Barrett emulated New Zealand great Richie McCaw when he won World Rugby's player of the year award for the second straight year.
The fly-half notched up 41 points against the Lions and said: "We learnt a lot from that series, particularly taking that into the World Cup."
But neither Hansen nor Gatland took the coach's award. That plaudit went to England boss Eddie Jones, who has steered his team to 22 wins out of 23 Tests since taking charge after their first-round exit at the 2015 World Cup.
"It's been staggering to win (22 out of 23) from, for me, what was a shambles in the 2015 World Cup," commented Clive Woodward, who led England to victory in the 2003 World Cup.
"Eddie's added new players and it's just the competitive nature of the squad, he's brought a real toughness into the team? Senior guys know they've got a chance in a couple of years' time."
- 'England 50/50 v All Blacks' -
England, however, have not played New Zealand under Jones, with the two nations scheduled to meet at Twickenham next November.
"England would go 50-50 into that game with nothing to fear," Woodward said.
England will first have to negotiate what is promising to be a hotly contested Six Nations tournament as Ireland and Scotland wrapped up their November outings in style.
"Every side wants to beat us. Whether they're playing here at Twickenham or away, this is their big game of the Six Nations," Jones said.
Scotland were undoubtedly the stand-out team of the autumn, 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.
"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," said Townsend.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, whose team won three from three in November including a record 38-3 thumping of a South Africa struggling with selection made on strict race quotas, 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."
While the autumn series was a mixed bag for Wales, it was an unmitigated catastrophe for both France and Italy.
France's 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 was expected to be replaced by former Italy coach Jacques Brunel for the 2018 Six Nations.
© 2017 AFP