Rory Best believes Ireland have filled the “void” between the northern and southern hemispheres with their historic autumn Test series.
Ireland became the first European team since England in 2003 to register calendar-year victories over the southern hemisphere’s big three with their 27-24 win over Australia on Saturday.
Best toasted his 100th cap with a win for the annals as Ireland added the Wallabies scalp to their June victory over South Africa and the November 5 triumph over New Zealand in Chicago.
“It’s a pretty big achievement for us to do that,” said Best, of Ireland’s southern hemisphere clean sweep in 2016.
“It’s a good sign for us with the depth that we’re now building.
“After the Rugby World Cup there was all the talk about a big void between the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere.
“We didn’t think there was a gap 12 months ago, but now we feel that as a team on our day we can compete with anyone.
“To get a result today is very important for us.”
Ireland ended the 2015 World Cup feeling they had blown their best-ever chance to reach a maiden semi-final with a frustrating last-eight loss to Argentina.
Hosts England flopped spectacularly and New Zealand collected the William Webb Ellis Cup for the second time in a row.
All four semi-finalists hailed from the southern hemisphere, prompting much soul-searching in Europe.
Ireland’s first win over the All Blacks, the 40-29 win at Soldier Field earlier this month, has helped elevate Schmidt’s men to new heights however.
And now Best hopes the side can carry that confidence forward.
“We’ve simply got to keep improving,” said Best.
“We know that that’s the big challenge, because you look at how Scotland have come along and how England are going now - we’ll have to be better in the Six Nations, there’s no doubt about that.”
Best became Ireland’s fifth centurion at the Aviva Stadium, joining Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes in the exclusive set.
The 34-year-old produced another stirring performance, as Iain Henderson, Garry Ringrose and Keith Earls claimed the vital tries.