Europe throws down the gauntlet in All Blacks absence

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James Mortimer     02 Dec 2014     Getty Images

To think, if New Zealand had played a Test this past weekend, it would have likely been against Ireland, on current form the best team in Europe.

Joe Schmidt’s side have calmly registered a seven match winning streak that includes heady victories over the Springboks and Wallabies, the first time since 2006 the Irish have taken double senior SANZAR scalps in an autumn campaign.

While Kiwi fans might throw their jerseys up in the air in protest, in Jonathan Sexton the Six Nations champions have perhaps have the best in-game management first five-eighth going around (based on current form mind), but it is their pack that has been fearsome.

In what is wonderful news for Hurricanes fans, John Plumtree’s influence is all over the Ireland forwards, clearing breakdowns from deep, and often neglecting wide stationing of the big men – the All Blacks preference – to flood the seas of the ruck with green.

Considering that on occasion some Irish players might jolt upright in the darkness of night in a cold sweat thinking about November 24 in 2013 (that comeback and that second kicked goal), a rendezvous with the World Champions is eagerly awaited.

Somewhat deliciously, or disappointingly pending on your stance, the best in the North did not cross paths with the best in the South.

Ireland, like New Zealand, sat out action over the weekend.

While Wales and England showed what a bit of attitude can do, ending their November operations on a high note.

Warren Gatland and his Red Dragons haven’t exactly been breathing fire on the field of late, but a siege mentality in the week before, highlighted by media conferences where the word angry came to mind often, seems to have done the trick.

This was a hard Welsh side that withstood the Springboks collisions but more importantly came of age as an 80 minute team.

It is difficult to remember a side wearing Wales red talking so much in the dying minutes, a group of proud players full of determination to avoid the heartbreak of another close defeat.

England were a little more direct, using their forwards to batter the Wallabies into submission, although it was notable that the Australian cavalry out wide had too much sophistication at times and threatened to take the game.

This will be of some comfort for Steve Hansen and his selectors.

The head coach knows his forward pack didn’t cut a swathe through Europe, and there will be a wariness when the season post-mortem is completed that breakdown dominance will need to be improved considering the hunger of the European teams to scrap.

Yet the All Blacks backline, man for man, looks to be the best in the business.

However even the polish and threat of the World Champions back division hasn’t been able to constantly blow teams apart, even if they usually are behind the moments that define the winning and losing of a match.

Led by the Irish, the old continent has made a grand statement prior to the eighth quadrennial tournament in 2015.

All North versus South Test matches in Europe over November saw the ledger tied at 13-13.

For tier one opposition, it was nine to the North, six to the South.

The Six Nations is the next senior competition, giving their nations ample time to continue to refine, while below the equator Investec Super Rugby is on the menu, while Southern Test coaches plan their assault.

One thing is for certain.

If the All Blacks top their pool at next year’s World Cup, they will face Ireland or France, disputably the top two Northern nations over the last month, in the quarter-finals.

The prologue has now been written.

Now for the main course.