Ireland captain Rory Best says gap between hemispheres has been filled

Simon Zebo and CJ Stander celebrate after Saturday's Test win over Australia
Simon Zebo and CJ Stander celebrate after Saturday's Test win over Australia

Ireland captain Rory Best believes his side has helped fill the "void" between the northern and southern hemispheres with their historic autumn Test series.

A first win over New Zealand in Chicago was followed by Saturday's battling 27-24 victory over Australia.

All four semi-finalists at the 2015 Rugby World Cup came from the southern hemisphere but Ireland also secured a maiden win in South Africa in June.

"We feel that as a team on our day we can compete with anyone," said Best.

"After the Rugby World Cup there was all the talk about a big void between the northern and southern hemisphere.

"We didn't think there was a gap 12 months ago but we've simply got to keep improving. It's a good sign for us with the depth that we are now building."

Ireland's success over the Wallabies saw them become the first European side to defeat all three of the big southern hemisphere sides in a calendar year since England achieved the feat in 2003.

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Iain Henderson scored a try in Ireland's win over Australia

'One of my proudest days' - Schmidt

Schmidt described seeing his injury-ravaged team beat Australia as "one of his proudest days" after a performance which showed "immense character".

The New Zealand-born coach signed a contract extension through to the 2019 Rugby World Cup before their successful November series, which began by ending the All Blacks' 18-match unbeaten run in Chicago.

Their resultant rise to fourth place in the world rankings could prove crucial to their seeding for the World Cup draw on 10 May, with Ireland still having the chance to improve their position with a good performance in the 2017 Six Nations.

By contrast, third-placed Australia only have this Saturday's Test against England at Twickenham to consolidate their standing.

Schmidt handed out 18 debuts in his team's 12 Tests during 2016, demonstrating the strength in depth at his disposal.

The emergence of the likes of Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery and Josh van der Flier as quality performers on the international stage have been major plusses from the autumn internationals and the 'feelgood' factor is returning to Irish rugby after a disappointing World Cup quarter-final exit and an indifferent Six Nations campaign.

Having only beaten Italy and Scotland, and drawn with Wales, in the 2016 Six Nations, Ireland will be hopeful that home advantage will prove enough to help them overhaul France and Grand Slam winners England at the Aviva Stadium in February and March of next year.

Furlong 'embarrassed' by Lions link

By that stage, the battle for British & Irish Lions places will have been brought into much sharper focus, with tight-head prop Tadhg Furlong among those already emerging as a contender to be on the plane to New Zealand.

"It's kind of daunting in a way, to be honest with you," said prop Furlong of links to next summer's Lions squad.

"Because you know in your own head that 'jeez, my scrum wasn't great there' or 'my entry wasn't great here, and if I do this against a really great scrummaging pack, I'm going to be torn apart here'.

"That is your thought process and, with people throwing that out, you get kind of embarrassed.

"The Lions is synonymous with such a big brand and so many great players have played there. Do I see myself there at the minute? No.

"I think I have a long journey to go and, as I said, I've only started four games for Ireland, two Heineken Cup games for Leinster and it is a big, big step to be making those shouts."

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