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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 13:10 GMT
Northern lights shining bright
Clive Woodward refects on defeat to France while Ben Cohen celebrates scoring a try against New Zealand
England's record since 1999 provides a note of caution

With 363 days still to go, much can change before Sydney's Stadium Australia hosts next year's Rugby World Cup final.

But after a memorable month of autumn Tests, the game's fifth global showpiece promises to be the most fascinating yet.

If definitive judgements about a new world order must wait, November provided plenty of optimism for the northern hemisphere.

In nine matches, the southern hemisphere 'big three' of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa managed just two victories in Europe.

England flanker Lewis Moody in action against Australia
Lewis Moody's emergence was a major bonus

Leading the northern charge, after a tumultuous triple-header at Twickenham, are England.

New Zealand may have been under-strength, but victory over the men in black removed a monkey from English backs that has clung to them since the 1999 World Cup.

The single-point victory over Australia also disproved the theory that Martin Johnson's men cannot respond to adversity when the game plan goes temporarily awry.

And Saturday's demolition of the Springboks confirmed England have developed a ruthless streak in ramming home their superiority.

England may be imperious on their own Twickenham turf, as 18 successive victories testifies, but the memories of Paris, Dublin and Edinburgh are still fresh.

Ireland centre and captain Brian O'Driscoll takes on the Argentina defence
O'Driscoll inspired Ireland to three straight wins
To win the World Cup, the red rose army has to prove it can crank up the sweet chariot to the same devastating effect on foreign fields.

The same applies to Ireland, who can also take great heart from their autumn programme.

The wins over Australia and Argentina may not have been pretty, but proved Eddie O'Sullivan's side have the physical and tactical means to triumph in adverse conditions.

After running the All Blacks close in the summer, beating the world champions finally gave this Irish side a major southern hemisphere scalp.

Victory over Argentina, who had won their two previous encounters, was also important psychologically, with the Pumas - like the Wallabies - in Ireland's World Cup group.

Scotland too made significant strides in beating South Africa for the first time in 33 years, only partially diluted by unconvincing wins over Romania and Fiji.

Wales wing Gareth Thomas halts the charge of New Zealand's Jonah Lomu
Wales competed well with the All Blacks

Coach Ian McGeechan now has a cohesive pack to work with, while his faith in young players such as Andy Craig, Gordon Ross and Bruce Douglas is paying off.

Wales, despite being the only home nation not to have beaten one of the 'big three' this autumn, are also making slow progress under Steve Hansen.

For 70 minutes they defended and competed superbly against the All Blacks, a far cry from the pitiful capitulations to Ireland and England earlier this year.

They too have found succour in youth, with Dafydd Jones, Jamie Robinson and Michael Owen among those stating their cases for further recognition.

With France also trouncing South Africa and having the better of a draw with New Zealand, the northern hemisphere's leading lights are shining brightly.

Whether they are still on full beam a year from now will determine if this November is remembered as a minor tremor or a seismic shift in rugby's balance of power.

 NOV 23-24 TESTS
 WALES 17-43 NZ

See also:

21 Nov 02 | International
24 Nov 02 | Sports Talk
Links to more International stories are at the foot of the page.

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