Monday November 29, 2010
As if it were in doubt, the final weekend of the November internationals emphasised the southern hemisphere's control of world rugby, as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa all finished on a high.
England's exhilarating win over Australia and Scotland's victory over South Africa had given encouragement to the north, but when the month's action is analysed those results begin to look like aberrations.
The All Blacks set the standard by completing their third grand slam in five years, and for Europe's top countries the most worrying aspect was that it was done almost at ease.
Coming off an all-conquering Tri-Nations campaign, New Zealand beat England 26-16 before crushing Scotland 49-3.
There were few problems in the 38-18 win over Ireland but they had to dig deep against Wales, when they were reduced to 14 men and led by only a point early in the second half.
However, as they have so often, they found something extra to run out 37-25 winners.
The tour also threw up some milestones for New Zealand.
Peerless flyhalf Dan Carter moved ahead of Jonny Wilkinson as the game's highest points scorer, while captain Richie McCaw, who enjoyed another immense tour, and fullback Mils Muliaina overtook Sean Fitzpatrick as the country's most-capped players.
Coach Graham Henry eschewed his previous policy of widespread changes, instead working on moulding his first-choice team, but he will be delighted with the new off-loading option provided by giant centre Sonny Bill Williams.
The success of 2010 will be forgotten, however, if the All Blacks fail again at the World Cup on home soil next year.
South Africa are proof of how quickly things can change - and change back again.
Having won the Tri-Nations and beaten the British and Irish Lions in 2009, they were under fire from all quarters after a poor 2010 Tri-Nations.
They limped to wins over Ireland and Wales but their grand slam hopes were undone when Dan Parks kicked Scotland to a 21-17 win at a sodden Murrayfield.
Stung by criticism, the world champions were back to their belligerent best when they overpowered England 21-11 for their seventh successive win over the hosts.
Australia, too, were under pressure after they were blown away by England and saw their midweek side humiliated by Munster.
They stopped the rot by beating Italy and then, in probably the most impressive display of the month's internationals, dismantled France in a record 59-17 victory in Paris.
"We can't explain how we collapsed mentally and physically, individually and collectively in the last 30 minutes," said France coach Marc Lievremont, who said he had no intention of resigning following an unimpressive campaign that brought earlier wins over Fiji and Argentina.
England fans had also been bemused, in a good way, after seeing their team's backs cut loose to beat Australia 35-18.
Winger Chris Ashton, one of a new breed of young players who have breathed life into the sleeping giant, scored arguably the try of the month with his length-of-the field break, but manager Martin Johnson was right to pour cold water on claims that England are a changed team.
They did well enough to beat Samoa but were unable to reproduce their back-line fizz, or, more worryingly, match the forward power of the Springboks in a disappointing finale.
Of the traditional European powers, Scotland have probably advanced the most, despite an abject display against the All Blacks.
Ireland had to work hard to beat Samoa and strolled past a woeful Argentina, who have gone backwards since reaching the 2007 World Cup semi-finals.
The Irish played well in patches in defeat by the Springboks but, as ever, were unable to dent the All Blacks.
Wales should have beaten South Africa, were poor when drawing with Fiji, and will rue another missed opportunity against New Zealand.
Italy still look off the pace and, after being beaten by Argentina and Australia, had to work hard to get past Fiji.
One European bright spot was Romania beating Uruguay over two legs to become the 20th and final qualifier for the 2011 World Cup, which starts in New Zealand next September.