Four blockbuster tests this weekend could offer compelling evidence that the once-yawning chasm between northern and southern hemisphere rugby is now little more than a crack, with the World Cup just 14 months away.
In Wellington, Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago del Estero on Saturday, eight of the world’s best teams play deciding matches in north-south series to conclude the first proper mid-year test window since the COVID-19 pandemic.
An unprecedented northern sweep of last weekend’s second tests saw Ireland stun the All Blacks, Wales upset the Springboks, England strike back against the Wallabies and Scotland level up their series against Argentina.
Southern hemisphere powers New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have won eight of the nine World Cups between them but all are just 80 minutes away from embarrassment on home soil.
The world rankings already reflect a regional shift, with France and Ireland keeping the southern nations out of the top two for the first time since the listing was introduced.
Ireland could go top with a win at Wellington Stadium, where they will be looking to hand New Zealand straight home losses for the first time in 24 years.
The All Blacks backlash is a phenomenon well known to teams who have had the temerity to beat New Zealand, but Ireland coach Andy Farrell said his players had no qualms about facing it.
“We want this, I have to emphasise that,” he said in the New Zealand capital on Thursday.
“To have them in the last game before we break for the season, for them to be fired up, wanting to prove a point to them and to us, it really does not get any better.”
Wales secured their maiden win over the Springboks in South Africa last weekend and have history in their grasp against the world champions at Newlands on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a fair old challenge for us, we know that,” said coach Wayne Pivac. “But I think all the soreness, and the tiredness of the tour goes out of the window when you get that adrenaline, and kickoff comes.”
Scotland face a different challenge in their decider in the Argentine interior, tasked with reasserting northern dominance over a slowly growing southern power in the Pumas.
That England-Australia is going down to the final match is less surprising given Eddie Jones’s team won 3-0 on their last tour Down Under before going on an eight-match winning streak against the Wallabies.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper believes the gap between the leading rugby nations is now paper-thin.
“It’s definitely been the story over the last few years, there are no easy games,” he said on Friday at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
“Every game, it is super competitive, it’s going down to the wire. I think it’s great for rugby, great for the fans. I know in our series, it’s been two great tussles and I expect tomorrow to be no different.”