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Last Updated: Monday, 27 November 2006, 07:24 GMT
Cruellest month
By James Standley

The November internationals are over for another year and there are some clear winners and clear losers.

Ireland and Argentina both took a big step forward and New Zealand were as awesome as expected, while France and floundering world champions England both ended as big losers and Scotland took a step back.

In the middle group Wales, South Africa and Australia balanced the good with the bad, content to leave the ugly to England.

BBC Sport takes a closer look how the world's top teams fared over the past month with the World Cup in France now less than 12 months away.

WINNERS

Without a doubt the big news over the past month has been the continued improvement of Ireland and Argentina, if only because New Zealand's excellence surprised no-one.

Argentina celebrate their historic win over England
Argentina capped a fine month by winning at Twickenham for the first time

Ireland secured impressive wins over both South Africa and Australia, confirmed they can now play in a range of styles and improved their strength in depth - vital for a World Cup campaign.

Neil Best has emerged as a top-notch blind-side flanker, Ronan O'Gara gets better with age at fly-half and Shane Horgan has joined the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell as world class.

Argentina, excluded from the Six Nations and Tri-Nations, confirmed they belong at the top table with a first win against England at Twickenham and their only defeat was by a point away to France.

Inspired by veterans Agustin Pichot and Mario Ledesma they overcame lack of preparation time, no money and the absence of a couple of key players to make their mark.

As for New Zealand, they had greater physicality, better skills and more pace than any of their opponents as they disposed of England, France and Wales. Job done.

NO CHANGE

Up until their last games, South Africa and Australia both looked as though they were going to go home as losers.

Australia escaped with a draw against Wales and then bounced back from a big defeat by Ireland to hammer Scotland.

South Africa celebrate CJ van der Linde's try against England on Saturday
South Africa will take some positives out of their trip to Europe

Their pack continues to be a concern against the best teams but their backs, when they are not moaning about the wind and the rain, are the equal of even New Zealand's.

South Africa also went down heavily against Ireland but they improved with every game and, after a narrow defeat first up, they comfortably disposed of England on Saturday, probably saving under-pressure boss Jake White's job.

The coach left a number of big names at home to rest and when he flies back to face his bosses he can present a convincing argument that South Africa have found greater strength in depth because of the tour.

New faces Pierre Spies, Francois Steyn and Kabamba Floors all impressed for the Boks.

It was a mixed month for Wales, who will be kicking themselves that they failed to beat Australia.

There was no disgrace in being taken apart by New Zealand - they weren't the only ones - they had lively victories against the Pacific Islands and Canada and in James Hook they have unearthed a real talent.

LOSERS

England should really be in a category all of their own here after home defeats by New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa.

England boss Andy Robinson
Andy Robinson's job as England coach is hanging by a thread

They managed to avoid losing eight straight by winning the first Test against the Boks, but that was the only good news as they continued their regression from world champs to chumps.

England were lacking in confidence, their skills were poor, their thinking was muddled and their execution was dire.

Coach Andy Robinson is a dead man walking and some of his decision-making was frankly bizarre - three minutes for Toby Flood on Saturday, anyone?

Scottish fans will no doubt be enjoying the discomfort of their neighbours from south of the border but it was not a good month for them either.

Wins against the Pacific Islands and Romania were more than cancelled out by a heavy defeat at the hands of a Wallaby side who had more than one eye on the beach.

France also had a chastening time, with a first win in five attempts against Argentina doing little to ease the pain of two defeats - one a 47-3 hammering - by the rampant All Blacks.

Their front row is not the force of old while they have a major problem at fly-half, where Damien Traille failed to fill the shoes of long-term injury victim Frederic Michalak.

The French are desperate to win the World Cup on home soil and while they appear not to have to worry about England retaining their crown, at the moment French hopes of denying New Zealand look bleak.


606 DEBATE: Do you agree with this World XV?

Current World XV team: Latham (Australia); Rokocoko (New Zealand), O'Driscoll (Ireland), McAlister (New Zealand), Sivivatu (New Zealand); Carter (New Zealand), Kelleher (New Zealand); Woodcock (New Zealand), Ledesma (Argentina), Hayman (New Zealand), Jack (New Zealand), O'Connell (Ireland), Collins (New Zealand), McCaw (New Zealand), Longo (Argentina)



SEE ALSO
England 'to force Robinson out'
26 Nov 06 |  English
Healey criticises 'gym culture'
26 Nov 06 |  English
O'Sullivan happy with autumn wins
26 Nov 06 |  Rugby Union
Hadden stays upbeat despite loss
25 Nov 06 |  Scottish
Aussie progress pleases Connolly
25 Nov 06 |  Rugby Union
Boks' improvement delights White
25 Nov 06 |  English
Laporte unhappy despite victory
26 Nov 06 |  Rugby Union


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