For some top tier countries, it has been a year of growth and improvement while others stutter in their preparation for the global tournament that looks like paper.
Springboks pile up before a match. Image: AFP
CAPE TOWN – Dust settled in international competitions in November and coaches' reflection time began 10 months after next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan.
For some top-tier countries, it has been a year of growth and improvement while others stutter in their build for the overall tournament that seems on paper to be one of the most open for years.
Reuters evaluates the state of nations.
New Zealand's decision to try Italy to demolish Italy in the final game of their end-of-season tour will have done nothing to alleviate concerns over the previous two games when they kicked off for England and lost to Ireland.
The All Blacks continue to be the benchmark in the rugby test and despite the losses to South Africa and Ireland this year, the odds of winning a third consecutive Cup should not slip far above the 2-1 mark.
How England and Ireland managed to emulate the British and Irish Lions of 2017, ending the New Zealand attack that marks the scoring, will mark fears that a model to defeat the All Blacks has been defined.
The question of whether only one attempt has scored in both England and Ireland matches is more a reflection of an improvement in the defenses of the Northern Hemisphere or a poor execution of the All Blacks will probably only be definitively answered in Japan.
The talent belt that gave coach Steve Hansen such a depth of work does not show any signs of drying, but he certainly thinks about how to implement it, particularly in the midfield.
A Six Nations Grand Slam, the first win in the test series in Australia for nearly 40 years and the All Blacks' well-deserved downfall in November 2018, the year Ireland became a genuine contender for the World Cup.
They may have needed a player of the year in the fall goal from Johnny Sexton's stoppage time in Paris to start a 11-game winning streak in 12, but what followed included victories in London, Melbourne and Sydney.
Testing against the United States, Italy and Argentina meant that November was really about New Zealand and the fact that Ireland won the second victory over the world champions without Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw and Sean O Brien spoke the depth by Joe Schmidt. disposition.
The second best team in the world goes to the World Cup year with a proven support in all positions and the fronts as Tadhg Furlong, James James and Jacob Stockdale, alongside Murray and Sexton, as the world's best in their positions .
Another Six Nations title – a triumph that would make four championships in six seasons for Schmidt – would keep the Irish bubbling around their boiling point on their trip to Japan.
Eddie Jones refused to thrill when England racked up 24 wins in their first 25 games in command and did not panic when they lost five consecutive defeats this year.
So it's not surprising that he's not getting carried away after an uplifting November series that propelled them back into the World Cup match – if they were always out.
After a 2-1 defeat in South Africa, England followed with another win over Springboks, a one-point loss to New Zealand, a confused win over Japan and a 37-18 win over Australia.
That left them with a 50% win rate in 12 games this year, but most observers would consider the Twickenham Cup to be considerably more than half full.
A long list of injuries forced Jones to scour the Premiership in third and fourth choice players in some positions and discovered potential gems such as the 18-stone Joe Fokanasiga wing was a bonus in developing the depth of his team.
He now has two months to absorb the latest lessons and will have to go straight to Ireland in the Six Nations when England can only improve from their fifth worst place in 2018.
Jones also has four World Cup qualifiers, including one against Ireland in Twickenham.
With France and Argentina battling for good form, the England side begins to look a little less challenging and with six consecutive victories over Australia, two against South Africa and a New Zealand defeat inspired by TMO, which could easily have been a victory, they should travel to Japan without fear of anyone.
Wales completed a series of tests in November for the first time and ended the year with nine straight wins and plans for the Warren Gatland World Cup are well under way.
A first win in 14 attempts against Australia was the high point but Wales will also be pleased with the way they managed to beat Scotland and South Africa.
Gatland has worked to create depth of team and this year has offered opportunities for a number of new players.
The test came as a fringe selection with 14 Tonga 74-24 trucids and Wales to finish the third year in the world ranking, up from the seventh at the end of 2017.
The change from Gareth Anscombe to flyhalf was a notable success, and with Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell there is also good competition in a key position.
Averaging nearly three attempts per game and conceding only 15 points per game shows a team that has improved in attack and defense in the last 12 months.
Their only defeats in 2018 were for Ireland and England, who are expected to meet after the Six Nations in 2019 in preparation for the World Cup, for tests that will be huge for Japan.
The Springboks may have finished 2018 with a 50% win rate, but there is considerably more optimism around the team than a year ago and the real belief that they can be World Cup contenders.
The win over New Zealand in Wellington was the great achievement and the 2-1 home win over England in June made the new coach Rassie Erasmus a positive start.
The team returned to traditional Bok rugby, powerful attackers who carry the ball with ferocity and a solid platform to loosen their back.
The team is far from the finished article, and a year-round feature has been the number of unforced errors that they have turned into winning games in defeats.
Among the seven losses, four were by a margin of five points or less and all were games that the team managed to lose from winning positions, which will be a key area of concern for the Erasmus title in the World Cup.
He has not yet been able to play a full force team due to club commitments to foreign players and will seize the opportunity to do so in Japan.
The worst test season in 60 years has outpaced Australia's off-season on and off the field since the Wallabies lost to New Zealand in the final World Cup final.
In November, the first defeat in 14 rounds against Wales, a win over three attempts against Italy and a sixth consecutive defeat to England left the double world champion in sixth in the ranking, a position that praises them.
Australians have enough quality through such names as Israel Folau, David Pocock and Will Genia to always pose a threat, but a consistent 80-minute performance against quality opposition seems increasingly beyond them.
"If you do not have the cattle, you do not have the cattle," is a phrase adored by losing coaches in Down Under and certainly some of Australia's strikers seem to be out of their depth internationally.
The lack of discipline on and off the field contributed to the perception of a dysfunctional setup, but what strikes most Wallabies fans is the sight of their backs approaching the defensive line with seemingly little idea how to break it.
If coach Michael Cheika survives the nine-game losing streak in 13 games this year, which seems likely, he will have his work cut short to replicate a repeat of 2015 when he turned an equally ill-regarded team into World Cup finalists.
Scotland proved to be a game for anyone in Murrayfield but a worrying inability to consistently win away from home will give coach Gregor Townsend sleepless nights before the World Cup.
Home victories over England, France and Argentina showed their best qualities, but heavy losses in Wales (twice) and in Ireland have revealed how much work there is yet to do.
A 30-29 shock to the United States in Houston in June served as a wake-up call while the best result came a week later when they defeated Argentina by 44 to 15 in Resistance.
After a solid Six Nations, the November internationals provided a good pointer to Townsend's readiness for the World Cup and again they produced a mixed bag.
The Wales defeat at Cardiff was followed by a resounding success over Fiji based on a strong second-half performance. The last two games brought a defeat to South Africa and a small victory over Argentina.
There were gains this year, the emergence of Adam Hastings in the flyhalf adds depth, and there was a significant rotation among the attackers as Townsend seems to build a powerful package.
The coach believes he has a team to compete with anyone in the Six Nations and therefore the World Cup too, but the results do not fully reflect that yet as Scotland still has no consistency.
France will be happy to see their comeback in 2018, in which they have won three of their 11 tests and suffered their first defeat in Fiji, a home defeat described as "shameful" by the Mathieu Bastareaud center.
The team must rebuild confidence before the World Cup, although there are other obvious areas of concern.
The French suffered an average of 26 points per game this year, despite three rounds having ended in the New Zealand world champion.
If coach Jacques Brunel had hoped they had learned the lessons from this series, they clearly did not, admitting an attempt in the last second to suffer a defeat by South Africa and allow Fiji to secure that historic victory.
Captain Guilhem Guirado suggested that the players had not respected the jersey and were not making the necessary effort after the defeat to the islanders, and with the composition of the team unlikely to change much ahead of the World Cup, which is an area where there are space for great improvement.
His year records were a surprising win for six home wins over England and a comprehensive 28-13 victory over World Cup C rivals Argentina, but it was a time when France went down.
Argentina recovered from a poor start to the year to record their best performance in the Rugby Championship, before losing three straight games against the European opposition.
The big question for coach Mario Ledesma and Argentina Rugby Union is to maintain the policy of selecting home players for the international team.
Ledesma took over as coach in August after Daniel Hourcade had overseen only two victories in 17 games and he immediately instilled a new spirit on the side.
The Pumas beat South Africa at home, overcame Australia on the Gold Coast and only failed to win three wins for the first time since joining the Rugby Championship in 2012 thanks to an epic home collapse in Australia.
That defeat – the second biggest turnaround in the second half of international rugby – has hurt Argentina since then.
There is no shame in losing to Ireland, but the defeats of France and Scotland cast doubt on their chances before the World Cup in Japan, where they were drawn in a competition with England, France, the United States and Tonga.
A recall of experienced players based in Europe can mean the difference between winning and losing against the greats of Japan.
Japan continued to develop a free-spirited style under the command of Jamie Joseph, which means they should at least receive home support next year.
However, the Brave Blossoms' attack system, combined with basic attacking errors, leaves them vulnerable in defense and this will be Joseph's focus as Japan seek to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
Joseph has consistently emphasized the need to address the inconsistencies that have plagued Japan in recent international meetings.
They were impressive against top nations, tying in 23 to 23 with France in Paris last year and leading England by five points in the interval, before losing.
They also scored 31 points against the All Blacks second-row team in Yokohama but conceded 69 points in that game and 27 in their narrow win over Russia on Saturday.
If Japan progresses from Pool A, where they are grouped with Ireland, Scotland, Russia and Samoa, they must show steel in defense to compliment their fluid attack.
Joseph will be backed by no top national rugby competition in 2019, leaving him with more than nine months to work with his players before the World Cup.
Italy suffered another torrid year that highlighted the declining status in world rugby and revived questions about adding value to the Six Nations.
Conor O'Shea's team won two victories in 11 games, a narrow success in Japan and a home win over Georgia but was defeated by all visitors with a three-point loss to Scotland in Rome.
His average score over the year was 16-38, although he scored only 20 points in a game on three occasions and only once against Georgia has conceded less than that number.
This points to a limited attack and porous defense, with little time to fix things before the World Cup.
Italy face New Zealand and South Africa in their group in Japan and seems to have little chance of making the round of 16.
His 66-3 loss to the All Blacks showed all their flaws as they barely threatened their opponents' line and could not handle the speed of the ball in New Zealand's hands.