Scotland coach Gregor Townsend welcomes the resurgence in northern hemisphere rugby but accepts that it means a very challenging 2019 awaits.
The Scots finished the Test year with a dogged 14-9 win over Argentina in poor conditions at the weekend on a day when all the Home Nations recorded victories.
The previous weekend’s 26-20 defeat by South Africa was put into context as Wales beat the Springboks 20-11 in Cardiff to make it four wins out of four in the autumn. Six Nations champions Ireland, who will be Scotland’s opening World Cup opponents in September, also enjoyed a November clean sweep which included another victory over the world champion All Blacks, while England registered wins over South Africa and Australia as well as coming close to toppling New Zealand.
It sets up a formidable Six Nations championship in a couple of months to kick off the huge World Cup year.
“I think the Six Nations will be tougher next year,” said Townsend. “When we were ranked sixth in the world, just a couple of weeks ago, four of the top six teams in the world were from the Six Nations. That has never happened in the history of the game, that the best teams according to the rankings were from the northern hemisphere. So that makes the Six Nations much tougher.
“Wales are playing some great rugby just now, on a fantastic run, third in the world. England just put over 30 points on Australia. And you’ve got Ireland beating New Zealand. That’s how competitive it is.
“France probably would have beaten South Africa, having been leading with 20 seconds to go. So they will become a force. And you’ve got our first opponents, Italy. We know how tough they were when we played them earlier in the year [a 29-27 win for Scotland in Rome].”
Scotland will return to BT Murrayfield on 2 February to kick off their Six Nations campaign against the Italians and Townsend acknowledges that a lot has happened since southern hemisphere sides filled all four semi-final slots at the last World Cup in England in 2015.
“I think the depth of player at each [Six Nations] country has got better and better,” said the Scotland coach.
“The competitions, whether it’s the English Premiership, the [French] Top 14, the Guinness Pro14 and the Heineken Champions Cup… they’re all a really high standard now.
“The coaches at the clubs, the level of player, it’s all really good. I think parts of our game in the northern hemisphere get more focus than in Super Rugby. So the defensive side of the game is certainly a strong aspect of what Ireland are doing, what Wales are doing and what we’re doing. What we saw with the Lions in New Zealand [during the drawn 2017 series] was the same.
“That makes it tough for the Southern Hemisphere teams because, within their competitions, I don’t think the emphasis on defence is as strong as it is up north.”