LONDON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - A stunning victory by England over world champions New Zealand and seven tries from Ireland against Argentina were two rare high points for the home nations in the November internationals against the visitors from the south.
Scotland and Wales, in particular, have plenty to ponder over the winter months after both were dumped into the third tier of teams for Monday's 2015 World Cup pool draw, meaning they will have to play two of the big guns at the next tournament hosted by England.
The Scots' struggles, which led to coach Andy Robinson's resignation, were not entirely unexpected, but grand slam champions Wales fell away badly, making last year's fourth place finish at the World Cup seem a distant memory.
They lost all four November tour matches to Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia, and have now dropped seven tests in a row.
Six Nations teams have been defeated in 40 of 49 home matches against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in Europe since the 2007 World Cup, an appalling return given that the visitors travel north at the end of a season that began in late February for those playing Super Rugby.
That trio, along with France, secured the top four world ranking spots before the end of the international fixtures, leaving the home nations to fight for a spot in the next tier.
England, fifth in the rankings despite their 38-21 over the All Blacks, will long celebrate their first victory over New Zealand since winning in Wellington in 2003, the year of their World Cup triumph.
There was little to indicate they were capable of such a performance after a scratchy win over a poor Fiji and close defeats to the Wallabies and Springboks which placed the spotlight on inexperienced captain Chris Robshaw after his decisions in both defeats arguably cost them the matches.
Perhaps stung by the criticism, Robshaw found another gear against New Zealand, a performance that may have also truly signaled the arrival of Manu Tuilagi and Owen Farrell on the international stage.
England kept the All Blacks scoreless in the first half, the first time that had happened since 1998, and then withstood a brief comeback to leave the 80,000 fans at Twickenham in raptures with three tries in eight minutes.
"People had written us off," Robshaw said. "That fuelled the fire. Everyone ran out there and believed we could do it."
England fans have been patient with coach Stuart Lancaster, knowing it would take time to recover from last year's World Cup debacle, but the famous victory will help them believe they have a team capable of footing it with the best.
After enjoying a summer in the south in which they beat Samoa, Fiji and Australia, Scotland fell away badly, a run that culminated in the 21-15 defeat to Tonga and Robinson falling on his sword after 3-1/2 years in charge.
He leaves a team in crisis, having suffered a Six Nations whitewash and firmly rooted among the third tier of World Cup rankings, having also lost to New Zealand and South Africa in November.
Ireland looked to have saved the job of their coach Declan Kidney with a sparkling display against a tired-looking Argentina, their 46-24 rout in Dublin ending a run of five straight defeats.
After pushing South Africa close, they ran in seven tries in a performance which featured a stunning debut by 21-year-old wing Craig Gilroy and raised hopes that there is life after Brian O'Driscoll finally hangs up his boots.
The biggest disappointments were Wales, semi-finalists at last year's World Cup.
After three narrow defeats to Australia, they hoped they would get the results their efforts deserved at their Millennium Stadium base.
That proved too optimistic, with shock defeats to Argentina and Samoa coming before the more expected reverses to the world champion All Blacks and the Wallabies.
On Saturday they were leading with a minute remaining when Australian flyhalf Kurtley Beale scored the only try of the match. The defeat relegated them to ninth in the world rankings, below Argentina and Samoa.
There was more to smile about on the other side of the channel, where after beating Tonga, Italy were valiant in defeat to both New Zealand and Australia, mounting a second-half comeback to give the Wallabies a huge fright in Florence.
France, runners-up at last year's World Cup, handed Australia a lesson before cruising past Argentina and Samoa.
New Zealand's spot as the world's best looked like it would go unchallenged, with the men in black recording untroubled wins wins over Scotland, Italy and Wales.
However the loss to England ended a 20-match unbeaten streak dating back to August last year.
As well as the bitter taste of defeat, they travel back home with fewer admirers. Flanker Adam Thomson earned a two-week ban for stamping on the head of Scotland's Alasdair Strokosch and hooker Andrew Hore was banned for five weeks for a stiff arm blow which resulted in Welsh lock Bradley Davies going to hospital.
While not hitting any great heights, Australia and South Africa largely did what they had too, apart from the Wallabies' poor display in Paris.
Samoa deservedly moved into the top eight thanks to a fine performance against Wales, while Tonga proved their win over France in last year's World Cup pool stages was no fluke with their victory in Aberdeen.
(Editing by John Mehaffey)