New Zealand and South Africa were made to weather bruising onslaughts by France and Wales before launching their end-of-year European tours with victories as the autumn internationals began in earnest on Saturday.
The All Blacks ended a 26-19 win in Paris camped on their own line and thankful for second-half tries by Charles Piutau and No. 8 Kieran Read to maintain their unbeaten record this year.
The Springboks emerged 24-15 winners in Cardiff after making the most of limited possession to score tries through Jean de Villiers, Bismarck du Plessis and Fourie du Preez in a 14th straight victory over Wales since 1999.
Australia completed a southern hemisphere sweep by crossing seven times to thrash Italy 50-20, while England blew hot and cold in beating Argentina 31-12 in preparation for the visit of New Zealand next weekend.
Ireland outclassed injury-hit Samoa 40-9 in Dublin, while Scotland beat Japan 42-17 in Edinburgh.
Also on Saturday, Fiji defeated Portugal 36-13 in Lisbon, Georgia pipped Canada 19-15 in Tbilisi to remain undefeated against teams from the Americas and Romania beat visiting Tonga 19-18 in their first meeting to round off an action-packed weekend.
France-New Zealand contests rarely disappoint and Saturday’s was no exception, with the All Blacks’ dropping their level sufficiently to give the Tricolors a chance of an upset at the Stade de France.
The hosts went 12-9 up two minutes into the second half, but Piutau raced onto a kick through, hacked on and grounded for a score that knocked France cold in the 46th minute, and when Read ran onto Piutau’s wonderful offload for a 64th-minute try, it looked all over at 26-12. However, Brice Dulin’s score kept France within a converted try for the final 10 minutes.
“Two proud nations and there was no quarter given today,” said New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, whose team need to beat England and Ireland to go through the year with a 100 percent record.
At the end of a full-blooded Test in the Welsh capital, it was the same old story for the Six Nations champions.
So often they come up short against the southern hemisphere juggernauts — in Warren Gatland’s five-year reign, they have won only once against a SANZAR team.
The Springboks were ruthless when they got a sniff of the try-line, with De Villiers finishing off a length-of-the-field move started by Bryan Habana in the 11th minute and Du Plessis crossing from close range six minutes later.
Leigh Halfpenny kept Wales in the game with five penalties in a flawless kicking display, but the hosts were hurt by game-ending, first-half injuries to prop Adam Jones, and backs Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams.
Du Preez scored the killer try in the 65th minute following good work by Jaque Fourie and South Africa next head to Scotland.
“They had possession, but it’s important what you do with it,” De Villiers said. “We’re not happy with the performance, it was a bit iffy, but we’re happy with the win.”
Nick Cummins (two), captain Ben Mowen, Tevita Kuridrani, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Joe Tomane and Israel Folau were the scorers in Turin for Australia, who scored 33 points without reply after a strong start by Italy.
“I think a lot of things are back on track,” said Australia coach Ewen McKenzie, whose side’s Grand Slam bid was ended by England at the first hurdle. “It was a really good scoreboard for us, particularly when we were 10-0 down. The guys worked through that and even in the end there we showed some character.”
Luke McLean, Lorenzo Cittadini and debutant Tommaso Allan crossed for Italy’s tries.
The All Blacks visit Twickenham next and assessing England’s form going into that match is proving tricky.
Following an inconsistent 20-13 win over Australia, Stuart Lancaster’s side were excellent in the first half against Argentina. Joe Launchbury, Billy Twelvetrees and Chris Ashton scored tries to set up a potential thrashing of a team that came to London with a new coach and off the back of six straight losses in the Rugby Championship.
However, there were errors aplenty after the interval by England and the Pumas threatened to get back into the match through Nicolas Sanchez’s penalties, only for replacement No. 8 Ben Morgan to crash through for a clinching fourth England try in the 78th minute.
“Second half, we were a bit loose and it wasn’t good enough overall, but I would have taken that scoreline this morning,” Lancaster said. “We’ve got to get that consistency for 80 minutes.”
Samoa had the opportunity to climb to an all-time high of fifth in the world rankings by beating Ireland, but the islanders’ injury-plagued side was dispatched in a record win in the fixture.
Ireland only led 14-6 at halftime thanks to Peter O’Mahony’s try, but ran away with it in the final 40 minutes, with Sean O’Brien, Dave Kearney (two) and Fergus McFadden grabbing tries.