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...
This is an extract from Planet Rugby's FREE weekly newsletter, the Crooked Feed, which featuring opinions, news and competitions. All you have to do is click here and sign up to receive our weekly email.
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-André 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 Tucumán 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 give us a better idea.
Meanwhile, he might not be in the John Eales category of feelgood Australian rugby union legends, but a fitting finale for Nathan Sharpe wouldn't go amiss.
The record is no longer on the cards, but New Zealand's dominance will surely continue. That will be their first objective, but what rugby fans around the northern hemisphere will hope for is to see a good show.
For some time the All Blacks were disliked for their supremacy, with their wiliness at the breakdown often getting under the skin of opposing supporters, but it's become increasingly hard not to appreciate their skill levels these days and their popularity seems to be on the rise. An all-singing, all-dancing tour of Europe could cement that.
Everyone thinks South Africa are the Bulls gone international. Heyneke Meyer denies it. What exactly is their gameplan, then? Who are they? Normally an end-of-season tour would be the perfect time for Meyer to provide some answers, but with so many crocked players that might prove difficult - the only positions in which the Springboks are not missing key players are scrum-half and full-back.
With that in mind, this tour might be about developing some strength in depth - something South Africa will need if the Super Rugby season remains so lengthy and their best players remain without central contracts. One defeat would be forgivable, but two would put Meyer under serious pressure.
Tier Two and Three nations
Off the back of some big performances at the World Cup, the IRB have invested heavily in getting some quality game time for the smaller nations with an unprecedented number of fixtures this November.
Russia, USA, Samoa, Canada, Tonga, Fiji, Romania, Japan, Uruguay, Portugal, Georgia and Chile will all be in action with the three Pacific Island teams taking on Europe's top teams. One of the highlights of this busy programme will be in Colwyn Bay, Wales, with a mini tournament being played over two match days including some mouth-watering fixtures like Russia v USA and Samoa v Canada.
No team in world rugby is subject to more political interference than Fiji, for whom continuity has always been a problem as a result. Part of the new directive from upon high is to pick more locally-based players. The squad named by new coach Inoke Male is a politically correct mix of 16 Fiji-based players, 14 from overseas teams, and includes 16 new caps, meaning a lot of big names have been left out.
Tonga provided the biggest shock at the World Cup when they beat France and their fixture against Italy should be fascinating. The Island nations have traditionally struggled in the set pieces but Tonga are in the bitter-sweet situation of having arguably the best looseheads in the world in Perpignan's Sona Taumalolo and Northampton's Soane Tonga'uiha.
Having pushed South Africa to the limit at the RWC, Samoa are rebuilding after their own political fallout but will nevertheless expect to give Wales and France a solid workout.
Japan coach Eddie Jones is probably a little delusional in his ambitions to make Japan a top 10 nation by the time they host the 2015 World Cup but a daunting fixture in Georgia and a rematch with the French Barbarians will be a good measure of their progress.
Saturday November 3
Oxford University vs Russia at Iffley Road (Oxford, England)
Friday November 9
Russia vs USA at Parc Eirias (Colwyn Bay, Wales)
Samoa vs Canada at Parc Eirias (Colwyn Bay, Wales)
Saturday November 10
Italy v Tonga at Stadio M Rigamonti (Brescia)
England v Fiji at Twickenham Stadium (London)
Ireland v South Africa at Aviva Stadium (Dublin)
Wales v Argentina at Millennium Stadium (Cardiff)
Romania vs Japan in Bucharest
France v Australia at Stade de France (Paris)
Sunday November 11
Scotland v New Zealand at Murrayfield (Edinburgh)
Uruguay vs Portugal in Montevideo
Tuesday November 13
Gloucester vs Fiji at Kingsholm (Gloucester)
Newcastle v Tonga, Kingston Park (Newcastle)
Friday Novmeber 16
Wales v Samoa at Millennium Stadium (Cardiff)
Saturday November 17
Italy v New Zealand at Stadio Olimpico (Rome)
England v Australia at Twickenham Stadium (London)
Ireland XV v Fiji at Thomond Park Stadium (Limerick)
Scotland v South Africa at Murrayfield (Edinburgh)
Canada vs Russia at Parc Eirias (Colwyn Bay, Wales)
Tonga vs USA at Parc Eirias (Colwyn Bay, Wales)
Georgia vs Japan in Tbilisi, Georgia
France v Argentina at Grand Stade de Lille Métropole (Lille)
Chile vs Portugal in Santiago, Chile
Wednesday November 21
Basque Selection vs Japan at Anoeta Stadium (San Sebastian, Spain)
Friday November 23
Canada vs Maori All Blacks at Iffley Road (Oxford, England)
Saturday November 24
Italy v Australia at Stadio Artemio Franchi (Florence)
England v South Africa at Twickenham Stadium (London)
Ireland v Argentina at Aviva Stadium (Dublin)
Wales v New Zealand at Millennium Stadium (Cardiff)
Scotland v Tonga at Pittodrie Stadium (Aberdeen)
Georgia vs Fiji in Tbilisi (Georgia)
France v Samoa at Stade de France (Paris)
Sunday November 25
France Barbarians vs Japan at Stadium Oceane (Le Havre)
Saturday December 1
England v New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium (London)
Wales v Australia at Millennium Stadium (Cardiff)