With four weeks of action to look back on, the November Tests taught us a lot about world rugby's top sides. Joe Schmidt may have just announced that he is leaving Ireland after the Rugby World Cup next year, but the past month has highlighted why the Irish are such strong contenders with less than 10 months to go until the tournament kicks off in Japan.
Their result against New Zealand showed that the world champions are beatable, one of the key takeaways from the past month of international rugby. Elsewhere, Wales won four from four, England showed grit, while Australia completely fell apart. Here's what we learned -- in order of each team's current world ranking.
No.1 - New Zealand
Best performer: Ben Smith. Can you remember the last time the All Blacks star had a bad game? Has it ever happened? Well, at a stretch, maybe the yellow card from the 2015 World Cup final? Fast forward three years and he continues to deliver week in, week out, even if it is in the slightly less preferred position of right winger. Smith had a brilliant tour, standing up against both England and Ireland when some of his teammates lost their way. He must return to full-back.
Biggest breakthrough: He may have only seen action against minnows Japan and Italy, but Ngani Laumape has certainly put himself firmly back on the World Cup radar. With Sonny Bill Williams battling through injury after injury, and Ryan Crotty struggling for midfield thrust, Laumape may be in the best position to partner the hugely impressive Jack Goodhue. He'll need a big Super Rugby season with the Canes, but Laumape may just have one foot on the plane to Japan.
Key takeaway: The All Blacks are beatable. Unlike 2011 and 2015 when New Zealand entered the World Cup as red-hot favourites, things are not so clear cut heading into 2019. Coach Steve Hansen knows that, on their day, any of Ireland, England and South Africa can beat his side; furthermore, they're all playing a style of game which clearly troubles the two-time defending world champions. Can Hansen transition them to a game plan that can stand up to the power-loaded, high-ball heavy and relentless rush defence? If they're holding aloft the Webb Ellis Cup in 11 months' time, it will surely be his crowning glory. -- Sam Bruce
No.2 - Ireland
Best performer: Peter O'Mahony. Ireland's November was all about New Zealand, and O'Mahony's man-of-the-match performance against the All Black was key in achieving their historic result. The flanker was immense on the night and encapsulated everything that was good about the Irish display. It takes a lot to take the shine away from World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton, but O'Mahony was Ireland's standout man this November.
Biggest breakthrough: Josh van der Flier. This is more of a re-breakthrough, and a reminder of the astonishing depth of Joe Schmidt's current squad. Van Der Flier returned from a serious knee injury in September but found that he had slipped down the pecking order ahead of the November Tests. But then Sean O'Brien broke his arm, Dan Leavy picked up a knock and suddenly Van Der Flier was starting against the All Blacks. His performance on the night and dramatic reemergence onto the international stage was massive in helping Ireland get over the line.
Key takeaway: Ireland are the best team in the world in all but name. New Zealand may still top the official rankings, but Steve Hansen admitted himself following Ireland's historic win over the All Blacks in Dublin that the Irish are the world's best side on current form. You certainly can't argue that Ireland haven't had the best 2018 out of world rugby's elite, with another Six Nations Grand Slam and a series win in Australia to add to that New Zealand result. They have the team, they have the squad, they have the beating of the All Blacks. Surely that makes them World Cup favourites? -- Jamie Braidwood
No.3 - Wales
Best performer: Justin Tipuric. With Sam Warburton gone, Tipuric has truly stepped out of the former Wales captain's shadow this November. Consistently brilliant this series, Tipuric was imperious against Australia, preventing the David Pocock-Michael Hooper axis of pain from gaining anything at the breakdown. Similarly, against South Africa, the Ospreys man put in several clattering tackles, breaking up the Springboks' momentum and eventually won a 67th minute penalty which Dan Biggar slammed over the posts to all-but-end the match as a contest. You can always rely on Tipuric to put in an eight or nine out of 10 performance, and in Wales' two biggest games of the month, Tipuric looked as good as ever. He surely has to be a contender to captain the Lions in 2021.
Biggest breakthrough: Josh Adams. With Wales having two Lions as options out wide, few would have given Worcester's Josh Adams a chance of being much more than a bench option this month. However, having come into the series as a man in-form, Warren Gatland handed the 23-year-old a surprise chance against Australia ahead of Liam Williams. He certainly took that chance with both hands, putting in what Gatland described as a man of the match display against the Wallabies. Adams has certainly displaced Steff Evans in the race for a wing spot, and he will certainly hand Gatland an almighty selection dilemma if everyone is fit for the Six Nations -- can Gatland really drop one of Williams or George North, or even Leigh Halfpenny and slot Williams at full-back?
Key takeaway: What a month it has been for Wales! A November clean sweep for the first time ever means momentum is certainly with Warren Gatland's side heading into World Cup year. The scary thing for the rest of the world's elite is that Wales don't look anywhere near the finished article yet -- this side are capable of playing so much better. Against Australia and Scotland, the attacking opportunities were there to make those games so much more comfortable. However, Wales were superb defensively this series -- they look like the best defensive team on the planet right now. If they can add a bit more cutting edge to their offense, don't count them out from challenging Ireland and New Zealand for the Webb Ellis Cup. -- Sean Nevin
No.4 - England
Best performer: Mark Wilson. No individual truly stood out for England this month as an imperious figure, they have played very much as a cohesive unit -- something that had undoubtedly been lacking throughout 2018. However, Wilson has swooped in under the radar to show he is a solid option in the back row. A man-of-the-match display against South Africa in his very first start for his country was followed by a try against Japan. He played the full 80 in all four of the Tests and was an absolute animal throughout.
Biggest breakthrough: Joe Cokanasiga. The Bath winger is still incredibly raw, but boy did he add an "X Factor" to England whenever he took to the Twickenham turf this month. He turned the game on his debut against Japan as England went into the break trailing, while he was also sensational against Australia. Dane Haylett-Petty will be having nightmares for the rest of his days after facing the pure power and pace of the 21-year-old. Cokanasiga has a lot in common with All Blacks great Jonah Lomu and he very much has the potential to go on and become a true world beater. Two international appearances, two tries. England fans have every reason to get excited.
Key takeaway: This year will still ultimately go down as a poor one for England despite a solid set of results to end the year. There is still a lot of work for Eddie Jones and his coaching staff to do to turn England into World Cup contenders. Against New Zealand, England showed that they can take the game to any team in the world, but the true barometer for where England are ahead of the World Cup will come in the Six Nations. An opening weekend trip to Dublin to face Ireland and a tricky visit to Wales on the third weekend will provide the ultimate test for this side. -- Sean Nevin
No.5 - South Africa
Best performer: Pieter-Steph du Toit. The utility forward deserves an ice-cold beer while enjoying the Swartland sunset on his family's farm with his feet up. Whether he played in the second row or on the side of the scrum, Du Toit left it all on the field during the November Tests. His unbelievable work-rate, which has become the stuff of legend after attempting close to 30 tackles against the All Blacks in Wellington, makes him one of the Boks' most important players going forward.
Biggest breakthrough: Cheslin Kolbe. The diminutive winger had the Welsh defenders clutching at thin air inside the Principality Stadium on Saturday night during an outrageous exhibition of stepping. But Kolbe also showed his prowess under the high ball and made some important tackles. The Toulouse man is not the biggest rugby player on the planet, but his heart is as big as they come in the game.
Key takeaway: The positive for Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus is that he has built a settled squad in 2018 following two years of chopping and changing. The tour experience would also have given the rookies a taste of what they can expect at next year's World Cup by playing four tough Test matches back-to-back. However, the Boks need to polish a lot of areas of their game that let them down at crucial times during this tour. Their rush defence is certainly still a work in progress, while their attack also lacked some oomph. -- John Goliath
No.6 - Australia
Best performer: David Pocock. The level of importance the champion back-rower carries in this struggling Wallabies side was clear for all to see on Saturday when Australia were destroyed at the breakdown by England in his absence. Before that, though, Pocock had been at his immovable best against Wales, Italy and New Zealand in Bledisloe III. Nobody has earned the opportunity to rest a weary body over the offseason more than Pocock. He is the Wallabies' most important player.
Biggest breakthrough: After almost a year on the sidelines with a serious hamstring injury, Jack Dempsey is slowly starting to return to the form he showed as a breakout player late in the 2017 Rugby Championship. He will never power through the heart of an opposition forward pack, but he has the footwork and game smarts to be a Test regular. But there is a bigger question at hand in the back-row, and that is whether Michael Cheika can persist with the "Pooper" combination in his run-on side. The eligibility of Isi Naisarani and possible return of Sean McMahon will only further cloud that.
Key takeaway: This Wallabies side is completely broken. With just four, or possibly five Tests before they face Fiji in Sapporo on Sept. 21, Cheika will have to perform a minor miracle in not only restoring confidence in his squad but also giving them a game plan that can mix it with the world's best. The calls for his head will continue to come, likely even more loudly after his misdirection on the Beale-Ashley-Cooper incident, and while that would sting an already financially strapped Rugby Australia, something simply must change. -- Sam Bruce
No.7 - Scotland
Best performer: Greig Laidlaw. At the age of 33, Laidlaw's importance to this Scotland team becomes clearer with each passing game. He is the calm head of experience that Scotland needs to close out tight matches, just as he did against Argentina in the final Test of the series. Finn Russell, Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg may all have had more standout moments this month, but Laidlaw is the glue that holds them all together at scrum-half. He will continue to dictate the flow of Scotland's exciting attack next year.
Biggest breakthrough: Sam Skinner. Relatively unknown amongst Scottish rugby fans at the start of the month, the former England youth certainly made a name for himself in the Dark Blue jersey this November. The Exeter Chiefs lock was named man of the match on his debut against Fiji before he showed his versatility with a start in the back row against South Africa. Gregor Townsend has been more than vindicated by bringing Skinner into the fold -- and what a bonus it is to do it from under England's nose -- and will be delighted by finding another reliable option to add to his World Cup squad.
Key takeaway: Scotland have a lot more work to do. Two wins and two defeats from four games would probably have been seen as even-par at the start of the month, and there was plenty to be encouraged by in their narrow defeat to the Springboks. If you flip that result, an average month suddenly looks like a great one. But there lies the problem. Scotland have the talent, ability and flair to challenge anyone, but they need to start delivering results. Promising performances won't count for anything in 2019. -- Jamie Braidwood
No.8 - France
Best performer: Guilhem Guirado. Coming into November, the captain was probably one of very few names lightly pencilled-in on Jacques Brunel's provisional list for Japan, but he had several points to prove to ensure his last international hurrah would be at a World Cup. A trio of bullocking performances -- not to mention four tries -- after a much-needed summer off surely means that, fitness permitting, he is now on the certainties list.
Biggest breakthrough: Arthur Iturria. Brunel played the continuity game where possible, so there were few options for this section, and Iturria was the only real candidate. There were question marks aplenty over his switch from lock to the back row, but he proved the doubters wrong. For the first two outings, Baptiste Serin, too, made the most of an opportunity he would not have had if one or more of Parra, Couilloud and Machenaud had been fit. How France must wish that a Parra or a Machenaud had been able to bring direction and discipline to the Fiji game...
Key takeaway: The horror show against Fiji was the rudest wake-up call. France should pretty much forget about next year's World Cup. Getting out of the pool must now be the sum of all ambitions in Japan. But, and it's no consolation, they at least don't look quite so scared under Brunel. Hidden under the grimace-inducing cover of an eye-wateringly bad error-strewn performance against Fiji, and the ill-discipline that cost them the opener against South Africa, it's an underrated-yet-important fact. -- James Harrington
No.9 - Argentina
Best performer: Ramiro Moyano ended a very good 2018 on a high note. In November he was one of the best among an underperforming Pumas squad. He had good games against Ireland, France and Scotland and was one of the few who could, individually, make a difference.
Biggest breakthrough: Bautista Delguy seized his chance with Jaguares earlier this year and finished the season having become one of the most important players in Argentina team. In November he showed improvement defensively to add to his speed and attacking skills.
Key takeaway: The November tour was very different from what Mario Ledesma and his coaching staff expected. With three defeats, the Pumas were unable to build on all the good things they showed in a historic Rugby Championship, in which they won two games. There is a shortage of players in the squad, especially in some key areas like the first row, and as a result, the traditionally strong Argentine scrum is one of the main weaknesses less than a year away from RWC 2019. It was a very long season and several players need to rest. How Argentina recuperate over the break will be key in getting ready for the World Cup. -- Patricio Connolly
No.14 - Italy
Best performer: Abraham Steyn. The former Baby Springbok got the Azzurri No.8 shirt straight from captain Sergio Parisse's shoulders and he has simply been astonishing in trying to fill the void left by the Stade Francais player-- and national hero. A very good ball carrier, strong in defence and with a maturity that allows him to get more and more involved in the heart of the action, the Benetton utility back-rower has been the anchor for Conor O'Shea team. With the return of Parisse for the Six Nations, the Italians now have a good choice between the all-round qualities of their captain and a solid, well-trusted, traditional No.8 they have been looking for since the start of the new millennium.
Biggest breakthrough: In a month that saw the Azzurri score a mere 45 points in 4 games (163 against...) Jake Polledri, Seb Negri and debutant Johan Meyer did everything they could to contribute to their team. Solid in defence and in the set pieces, the back row contingent have been by far the best performers of Conor O'Shea squad. Mayer in particular was impressive defensively as he amassed 23 tackles in his debut against Ireland and was simply perfect from the bench in the other three outings.
Key takeaway: Well, with the "Six Nations referendum" against Georgia brought home comfortably, the past four weeks must be looked at as another little step in the growing process O'Shea has developed since his arrival. Italy are undoubtedly now more competent in a whole lot of different areas but are still widely lacking in the basic understanding of the game. The way they lost in Chicago against the mighty Ireland, the way they lost against a rickety Australia in Padua and, especially, the way they let the Lelos back into the game is starting to be a bit scary. If the Azzurri don't start finding that required game awareness soon, the risk that all the precious work done so far will be flushed away by another bunch of harsh defeats is more than a possibility.-- Enrico Borra