Six Nations Autumn Report: Scotland improving, England and Ireland still on top
Saturday's clash between Wales and South Africa brought the curtain down on international rugby in 2017, the Springboks denied despite their epic fightback,
With their autumn fixtures in the bag, focus for the northern hemisphere sides will turn to next year's Six Nations, which kicks off in February.
Here we take a look at how the contenders for that title have fared over the past month and what their prospects are when they return to competition in 2018.
The highlight of England's autumn programme was a 30-6 victory over Australia at Twickenham. The result represented their biggest winning margin over the Wallabies and extended their run of triumphs in the fixture to five - their last defeat coming in the pool stage at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Eddie Jones' men also collected wins against Argentina and a down-on-their-luck Samoa, but it is perhaps difficult to judge where England stand in their preparations for the 2019 World Cup. What is for certain is that 2018 will be a big year, as England chase a third successive Six Nations title and host the All Blacks in a long-anticipated autumn Test.
Six Nations winners in 2014 and 2015, Ireland prevented England from achieving back-to-back Grand Slams earlier this year, winning the final match of the championship 13-9 in Dublin to secure second place for themselves. Ireland kicked off their autumn campaign with a thumping 38-3 victory over South Africa, before a battling 23-20 win against Fiji and a 28-19 result when Argentina visited the Aviva Stadium. Joe Schmidt's men may not have grabbed headlines in the same way they did last autumn, when they famously ended the All Blacks' winning run in Chicago, but they remain a consistent force and should be considered England's biggest rivals for Six Nations glory once more.
It has been a rotten autumn for France. A 38-18 defeat to the All Blacks can be forgiven, but they were subsequently edged 18-17 by a Springboks side who had been thumped by Ireland a week earlier and rounded off their campaign with a shock 23-23 draw against World Cup hosts Japan in Paris. Les Bleus were only spared defeat in the latter after Yu Tamura missed a conversion attempt at the death, and the pressure is mounting on coach Guy Noves. France are now ranked fifth of the northern hemisphere sides and, while they are often difficult to predict, it could be a long Six Nations campaign for Noves, if he makes it that far.
Scotland have continued to improve since Gregor Townsend took over from Vern Cotter as head coach after last year's Six Nations and demonstrated during the autumn that they have the capacity to compete with the southern hemisphere's best. After opening with 44-38 victory over Samoa, Scotland came agonisingly close to clinching what would have been a historic first win against the All Blacks - Stuart Hogg halted as he raced for the line in the closing moments. But they were not to be denied a famous victory as, a week later, they stunned Australia 53-24. The winning margin was their biggest against the Wallabies, surpassing the previous best of nine. Scotland last won the Six Nations - then the Five Nations - in 1999 but they now look most likely to trouble England and Ireland at the top of the table.
It has been a difficult autumn to gauge for Wales. Warren Gatland's men showed signs of promise with their new style of play but were ultimately left disappointed against Australia, before battling hard for a 13-6 victory against Georgia. Wales were brave against the All Blacks but unable to withstand their clinical force, losing 33-18, and they almost squandered a healthy advantage to lose against South Africa on Saturday - leading 21-3 shortly before half-time, they were left to rely on a Leigh Halfpenny penalty to settle the encounter 24-22. Gatland has, in his defence, had to cope with multiple injuries - stars such as George North and Sam Warburton played no part in this campaign, for example - but the Kiwi has welcomed the opportunity to try new things. However, with Scotland improving and England and Ireland still strong, Wales will have to be on their game to have a say in the Six Nations.
Italy surprised everyone by beating South Africa during their 2016 autumn series, but they had no such luck this time around, beaten 35-6 by the Springboks in Padua. The campaign had started well for the Azzurri, thanks to a 19-10 win against Fiji, but they subsequently lost 31-15 to Argentina and haven't shown anything to suggest they will haul themselves off the foot of the Six Nations table in 2018.