Peter Jackson: The balance of power has tilted north

Ten years ago there was not a Six Nations country to be found in the top four of the official World Rugby rankings.

Ten years ago there was not a Six Nations country to be found in the top four of the official World Rugby rankings.

New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina made it a Southern Hemisphere monopoly.   How very different the landscape looks now. As the dust settles on a monumental month, all bar the All Blacks have been superseded by three of the four home countries, incontrovertible evidence of how the gap has closed.   For the first time the Six Nations will feature three of the world’s four best countries when it kicks off in February. On the Richter Scale of seismic events, the oldest annual international event across the spectrum of sport has the potential to go through the roof.   The opening weekend brings the first mighty collision between the No.2 team in the world against the No.4 – Ireland versus England at the Aviva Stadium on February 3.   The closing weekend will feature a fixture with the potential to prove a still mightier duel – the world’s No.3, Wales, at home to the defending champions, Ireland, in what could conceivably be a double Grand Slam decider.   They have much in common. Each is not so much on a roll as riding the crest of a wave having swept all before them during the autumn series. In addition to four wins out of four, each goes into World Cup year under the direction of a New Zealander prepared to bust the proverbial gut before walking away this time next year.

Warren Gatland’s tenth year in charge of Wales ends with the Red Dragons on a nine-match winning streak, their longest for almost 20 years. Victory over the Springboks secured their first autumn clean sweep and consolidated their highest ranking at any time under Gatland.   Joe Schmidt’s decision to put family first and ‘finish coaching’ at the expiry of his contract after the quadrennial jamboree in Japan adds a now-or-never dimension to Ireland’s World Cup bid. The architect-in-chief of the greatest year in Irish rugby history, Schmidt will devote the remainder of his time as head coach towards making next year greater still.   Under his supervision, Ireland have beaten every team in the current world’s top ten they have played in the last twelve months starting with the Springboks, 38-3 in Dublin this time last year.   They followed that with the Grand Slamming of Wales (37-27), England (24-15), Scotland (28-8) and France (15-13) in the Six Nations, Australia in a three-Test series down under in June, Argentina (28-17) in Dublin the other week and, glory be, New Zealand (16-9) seven days later.   World Rugby’s annual awards ceremony in Monte Carlo last weekend provided a glittering reflection of Ireland’s status on a global dimension. Only someone of exceptional ability could deny the phenomenal New Zealander Beauden Barrett a hat-trick of titles as Player of the Year which makes Johnny Sexton phenomenal-plus.

That he deserved nothing less says everything about the Dubliner’s regal year starting with his long-distance missile in the Paris rain without which there would have been no Grand Slam. On a night when Ireland won two more ‘Oscars’ as team of the year and Schmidt as coach of the year, Sexton became the first Irish player to win the main award since Keith Wood in 2001.   It came at the end of a month when the balance of power between the hemispheres shifted north of the Equator. The Six Nations went into the final holding a 5-4 lead over their counterparts from The Rugby Championship and pulled steadily clear.   No sooner had New Zealand’s runaway win in Rome levelled the score than England, Scotland and Wales settled the argument, each making home advantage count against Australia, Argentina and South Africa respectively.   A record sixth straight win over the Wallabies left England looking ahead to the Six Nations with renewed optimism. By the time they line up in Dublin in the New Year, they will hope to have a Test Lions like Mako Vunipola and Anthony Watson fit and firing – not to mention Mako’s brother Billy. Other notable absentees, Wasps lock Joe Launchbury and Sale flanker Tom Curry, will also be back.   Scotland signed off on a winning note, Sean Maitland’s try against Argentina ensuring a win as due reward for another full-house at BT Murrayfield. Capacity crowds on three successive Saturdays in Edinburgh reflect the magnetic box-office appeal of the Scots’ captivating brand of rugby under Gregor Townsend.   Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus paid Wales the pre-match compliment of describing them as the ‘silent assassins.’ The hosts duly lived up to their name, another cracking home win amounting to a personal triumph for a man who was not supposed to have been on the field at the start.   Ellis Jenkins, promoted at the eleventh hour following Dan Lydiate’s withdrawal because of a damaged elbow, started at blindside for the first ten minutes, then spent the rest of the match at No.8 in place of the injured Ross Moriarty.

Jenkins rose so magnificently to the occasion that he put the first Welsh try on the proverbial plate for Exeter tighthead Tomas Francis, then performed wonders to deny the Boks a try just before half-time that could have changed the course of the game.   How cruel that having helped bail his team out of a few storms and into calm waters, Jenkins should fall victim to a serious knee injury during the final seconds.   Wales’ winning run: South Africa (home) 20-11, Tonga (home) 74-24, Australia (home) 9-6, Scotland (home) 21-10, Argentina (away) 30-12, Argentina (away) 23-10, South Africa (neutral) 22-20, France (home) 14-13, Italy (home) 38-14.   Peter Jackson’s Six Nations XV of November:   15. Rob Kearney (Ireland) 14. Sean Maitland (Scotland) 13. Garry Ringrose  (Ireland) 12. Owen Farrell (England) 11. Jacob Stockade (Ireland) 10. Johnny Sexton (Ireland) 9. Ben Youngs (England)

1. Cian Healy (Ireland) 2. Rory Best (Ireland) 3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland) 4. James Ryan (Ireland) 5. Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales) 6. Peter O’Mahony (Ireland) 7. Justin Tipuric (Wales) 8. Mark Wilson (England)

Peter Jackson’s combined team of the month: 15. Beauden Barrett (New Zealand) 14. Ben Smith (New Zealand) 13. Ryan Crotty (New Zealand) 12. Owen Farrell (England) 11. Jacob Stockdale (Ireland) 10. Johnny Sexton (Ireland) 9. Faf de Klerk (South Africa)    1. Steven Kitshoff  (South Africa) 2. Codie Taylor (New Zealand) 3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland) 4. Brodie Retallick (New Zealand) 5. James Ryan (Ireland) 6. Peter O’Mahony (Ireland) 7. Justin Tipuric (Wales) 8. David Pocock (Australia)   Bench: Ken Owens (Wales), Cian Healy (Ireland), Owen Franks (New Zealand), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales), Michael Hooper (Australia), Aaron Smith (New Zealand), Damian McKenzie (New Zealand), Israel Folau (Australia).   Top ten rankings at the start of each year: 2009: 1 New Zealand, 2 South Africa, 3 Australia, 4 Argentina, 5 Wales, 6 England, 7 France, 8 Ireland, 9 Scotland, 10 Fiji.   2012: 1 New Zealand, 2 Australia, 3 France, 4 South Africa, 5 England, 6 Ireland, 7 Argentina, 8 Wales, 9 Tonga, 10 Scotland.   2013: 1 New Zealand, 2 South Africa, 3 Australia, 4 France, 5 England, 6 Ireland, 7 Samoa, 8 Argentina, 9 Wales, 10 Italy.   2014: 1 New Zealand, 2 South Africa, 3 Australia, 4 England, 5 France, 6 Wales, 7 Ireland, 8 Samoa, 9 Scotland, 10 Argentina.   2015: 1 New Zealand, 2 South Africa, 3 Ireland, 4 England, 5 Australia, 6 Wales, 7 France, 8 Scotland, 9 Argentina, 10 Samoa.   2016: 1 New Zealand, 2 Australia, 3 South Africa, 4 Wales, 5 Argentina, 6 Ireland, 7 France, 8 England, 9 Scotland, 10 Japan.   2017: 1 New Zealand, 2 England, 3 Australia, 4 Ireland, 5 Wales, 6 South Africa, 7 Scotland, 8 France, 9 Argentina, 10 Fiji.   2018: 1 New Zealand, 2 England, 3 Ireland, 4 Australia, 5 Scotland, 6 South Africa, 7 Wales, 8 Argentina, 9 France, 10 Fiji.   2019: 1 New Zealand, 2 Ireland, 3 Wales, 4 England, 5 South Africa, 6 Australia, 7 Scotland, 8 France, 9 Argentina, 10 Fiji.