Southern hemisphere continues to reign supreme
LONDON (Reuters) - Midway through rugby's November internationals and with 2015 World Cup seedings up for grabs, the dominance of southern hemisphere sides show little sign of abating.
Despite coming towards the end of season that began in late February for those playing Super Rugby, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have won five of their six games to date and remain ensconced in the top three of the world rankings.
The only blemish came from the Wallabies, who went down heavily to France in their opening match on tour.
Argentina, who joined the Rugby Championship for the first time in 2012, have made strides, outgunning Wales and putting up a brave showing in Saturday's 39-22 defeat to Les Bleus, while Samoa also stand on the brink of the all important top eight place after their fully deserved 26-19 victory over Wales.
The Pacific Islanders lie in ninth spot, only .16 rating points behind the Welsh ahead of their final tour match in Paris.
Six Nations champions Wales have the daunting prospect of trying to get something from consecutive games against the world champion All Blacks and Australia to probably avoid losing their place in the top eight and with it a probable tough pool assignment in 2015.
A place outside the top eight means having to meet two big guns in the group stage of the World Cup, and with the rankings on December 3 being used for the pool allocation draw that day, time is running out for those on the fringes.
Despite missing out on a record-equaling 17th straight victory after their 18-18 draw with Australia in October, New Zealand's status as top dogs in world rugby remains secure ahead of their remaining matches against Wales and England.
They have not lost a tour match in Europe since November 2002, a 31-28 defeat to England, and while not playing at the top of their game during wins over Scotland and Italy, their settled squad, which features only two news names in hooker Dane Coles and scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow, has been largely untroubled.
The emergence of Julian Savea as a international-class wing has continued, his four tries on tour taking his tally to 10 in just seven tests.
The Springboks travelled to Europe missing key players Bryan Habana, Frans Steyn, Bismarck du Plessis, Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies, Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussow, and saw prop Tendai Mtawarira return home after suffering a recurrence of a mild heart condition.
Their performances against Ireland and Scotland have been more workmanlike than flashy, but they look to have uncovered another gem in the second row in 21-year-old Eben Etzebeth, the Stormers lock.
Australia continue their Jekyll and Hyde existence under coach Robbie Deans, with their thrashing by the French followed by a composed 20-14 victory over England at Twickenham.
Their much-maligned forward pack turned in an impressive effort against England, while the kicking game of Berrick Barnes made the absence of Quade Cooper, reportedly set to reject a new contract offer from the Australian Rugby Union, less keenly felt.
France have kicked on from the runners-up spot at last year's World Cup, and their victories over Australia and Argentina have seen them open up a gap over fifth-ranked England ahead of their match with Samoa.
England have the chance to move back into fourth should they perform against South Africa and New Zealand, but are already rueing their decison to turn down several kickable penalties in Saturday's defeat by the Wallabies.
They were also hurt by a lack of composure at crucial times and poor handling skills as Stuart Lancaster searches for a lineup he can depend on.
The winner of Ireland's match with Argentina on Saturday should rest easy knowing they have done enough to stay in the second band of teams, but there will be nerves in the Wales camp ahead of two massive tests.
Wales, semi-finalists at last year's World Cup, have been in free-fall since claiming their third grand slam in eight years earlier in the year, suffering three narrow defeats to Australia followed by reverses to Argentina and Samoa.
Coach Warren Gatland, currently seconded to the British and Irish Lions, returns for a fortnight with the hope of shoring up his side's waning confidence, and secure a top eight spot.
Scotland played well in patches but lacked the ammunition to seriously threaten New Zealand and South Africa, although will be eyeing a result against Tonga at the weekend, even if it will not see them improve on their ranking of 10.
(Reporting by Josh Reich, editing by Justin Palmer)