LONDON (Reuters) - The first full weekend of 2016 autumn internationals reinforced rugby’s emerging world order as the northern hemisphere teams continued to close the gap on their southern rivals.
Leading the way on Saturday were England who scored the 10th straight win of coach Eddie Jones’ tenure, 37-21 against South Africa, while Scotland again served notice of their class by agonisingly losing to Australia by a single point for the second time in a year.
Wales recovered from last week’s humbling by Michael Cheika’s Wallabies to edge past Argentina 24-20 in Cardiff.
Italy, though, suffered a predictable ‘Blacklash’ from New Zealand who followed last week’s defeat against Ireland in Chicago by amassing 10 tries in demolishing Italy 68-10.
The All Blacks now turn their attention to next week’s highly-anticipated Dublin rematch with Ireland whose second-string warmed up by beating Canada 52-21.
Another win for Joe Schmidt’s exciting Irish team next week would rubber-stamp a new pecking order just over a year after the southern hemisphere supplied all four semi-finalists at the World Cup.
The 2015 tournament represented a particularly low point for hosts England who failed to advance beyond the group stages.
Jones was hired within a month of their embarrassing exit, since when progress has been clear.
Having already delivered their first Six Nations grand slam since 2003, and whitewashed Australia 3-0 Down Under, Saturday’s victory was their first over the Springboks in 12 games.
England, after a slow start, posted four tries in an impressive performance against opponents who were badly exposed on many fronts and Jones will be delighted by the number of options he now has at his disposal.
With 10 players ruled out of the autumn series through injury, England boast real strength in depth and can only get stronger when the likes of lock Maro Itoje and flanker James Haskell return.
Scotland have nothing like those resources. The 23-22 defeat by Australia provided a painful echo of their 35-34 World Cup quarter-final reverse but they deserved more and were only denied by a 76th-minute Tevita Kuridrani try.
For much of the match the home team’s raw pace and power looked like delivering victory in front of a raucous Murrayfield crowd after centre Huw Jones bagged two quality first-half tries to secure a 17-10 lead at the break.
The second half only confirmed that the Scots know as well as anyone how to grab plucky defeats from promising situations.
Nothing less than a win would have been good enough for Wales against Argentina and man of the match Alun Wyn Jones showed his considerable value at lock after missing the defeat by the Wallabies.
With fullback Leigh Halfpenny kicking beautifully, Wales started to resemble the side who so nearly made the World Cup semi-finals last year.
France remain the northern hemisphere’s great unquantifiables but three tries for Fiji-born wing Virimi Vakatawa in their 52-8 destruction of Samoa suggests they too might be poised to end 2016 in better fettle than they entered it.
The north is fighting back.
Editing by Tony Jimenez