The November Tests are upon us! With the World Cup draw taking place next month, the next five weeks will be vital in shaping paths of all the teams heading to England in 2015.
As the fixture list continues to swell, you would probably agree that good old-fashioned Tests, be they in the middle of the year or at the end of it, have lost a bit of their dazzle. Yet we're pleased that we can genuinely claim the November internationals this year will be worth more than the paper the tickets are printed on.
In a bulging sports calendar, context becomes king, and the upcoming Tests have that as nations jostle for rating points ahead of the Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool Allocation Draw in London on December 3. Finishing inside the top eight is vital to avoid facing two of the big guns.
As it stands, the rankings look like this: New Zealand (92.91), Australia (86.37), South Africa (84.69), England (83.09), France (83.03), Wales (82.26), Ireland (79.85) and Argentina (78.63). So how do rating points work?
The simple explanation is that for each match, there are only five possible outcomes that can affect points exchanges: either side winning by more than 15 points, either side winning by up to 15, or a draw. The home side is treated as though they are three rating points better than their current rating. This has the effect of 'handicapping' the host as they will tend to pick up fewer points for winning and give away more points for losing. In this way, the advantage of playing at home is quashed.
So aside from wanting to win by lots and lots of points, what are the various nations out to achieve? Let's run through each one...
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Stuart Lancaster has spoken about trying to balance the long-term with immediate results. In a way, these November Tests are the perfect opportunity for him to realise what his best side is, such as who is his number one scrum-half, fly-half and so on.
We think they're capable of picking up three wins from their four international games but a worst-case scenario is comfortably losing to the Wallabies, Springboks and All Blacks. His squad looks strong and is critically buying into the mindset the coaching staff has instilled since they took over following a disappointing World Cup.
Head coach Philippe Saint-AndrÃ© has not had much time or many games to look at his squad since taking the reins from Marc Lievremont. Two games against Argentina in June when they won the second Test in TucumÃ¡n has not really been a decent yardstick to gauge his players, particularly with the Pumas line-up that day being markedly different to the one that played in the Rugby Championship.
They are without talismanic captain Thierry Dusautoir in November, with opponents set to fancy their chances of upsetting the hosts. Toulouse star Louis Picamoles is going to be a key player at number eight.
A victory over South Africa would be massive as Ireland continue to strive for consistency. A packed-out Aviva Stadium with all of the Irish first team available is critical to their hopes. The nightmare scenario for Ireland would be to lose two from three and fall even further down the rankings list.
Key players for them in November will be Stephen Ferris, Jonathan Sexton and their front-row, who have two tough tests awaiting them in the Boks and Pumas. Mike Ross has improved of late, and with Paul O'Connell getting back to top form in the Heineken Cup, the signs are good.
A defeat to Argentina followed by wins over Canada and USA was to be expected from Jacques Brunel's side in June. November brings much sterner tests however as the All Blacks and Wallabies could be painful fixtures after facing Tonga.
Treviso have been performing well so far in the RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup, but it is hard to look past just the one win being picked up and at best finishing tenth in the rankings ahead of the December pool allocation in London. As always, the form of number eight and captain Sergio Parisse will be imperative while Martin Castrogiovanni needs a big series.
Scotland hope to back up their impressive June wins over Australia, Fiji and Samoa with further plus points against New Zealand, South Africa and Tonga in November. It'll be a tough ask to take the scalp of the All Blacks or Springboks but they have beaten the Boks before (and Australia recently on the road).
So with passion aplenty, their hardened forwards in top form and Greig Laidlaw and Tim Visser fully fit, they will go into this series hungry. Andy Robinson always expects a lot and they have already set the bar high with coach Chris Paterson recently saying they are eyeing up the 2015 World Cup.
Wales were many people's choice to lift the 2015 World Cup after their refreshingly impressive showings in 2011. A Six Nations Grand Slam then followed but unfortunately they hit a stumbling block in Australia over June, losing all three Tests in a series we thought they would take.
The Welsh are currently sixth in the list and that shouldn't alter too much before December. Three victories from four would be positive for Rob Howley but the question remains over whether he will pick Rhys Priestland or Dan Biggar at fly-half and whether he can fit Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric in the same XV.
Progress and continuity are the name of the game for Argentina, as Santiago Phelan has confirmed. The results say that the Pumas matched rather than exceeded expectations on their Rugby Championship debut, but in truth they provided some proper scares and suggested that with regular game time together, it might not be too long until they can compete with the best.
This tour is the perfect opportunity to illustrate that, as Argentina take on the three sides directly above them in the rankings. Each game is eminently winnable, but realistically, winning two out of three would be seen as a big success.
You mean New Zealand B? (Honk honk - ed) After a Rugby Championship campaign in which the Australian donkey cart lost several wheels, clattered to a halt, nearly assassinated its chief, then somehow pulled it all together to cross the line in joyous celebration, it's difficult to know quite what we should make of the Wallabies right now.
The rankings tell us that they're still the second-best side on the planet - a fair effort given the injuries they had during the Rugby Champs - but the lacklustre performances from their Super Rugby sides is one of several reasons to ponder whether all is well. Games against France, England, Italy and Wales might