By Ian Gilbert
The November internationals are always fiercely contested affairs but this year there’s an added incentive with victories vital in a bid to get the best possible seeding for the Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool Allocation Draw on 3 December.
The IRB World Rankings will be used to rank the 12 directly qualified teams for England 2015 into three bands for that draw with the sides ranked one to four in band one - and crucially avoiding each other until the knockout stages - those five to eight in band two and the remaining four in band three.
If the Pool Allocation Draw was to happen today, the bands would be as follows:
Band 1: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England
Band 2: France, Wales, Ireland, Argentina
Band 3: Scotland, Samoa, Italy, Tonga
These 12 teams are all in action this weekend, with France against Australia the match most likely to reshuffle the rankings.
The two sides have met twice in the Rugby World Cup, with one win apiece, and the end-of-year tours have been almost as evenly matched.
Since 1987, Australia have shaded the tally 6-5 on French soil, with Paris a particularly happy hunting ground for the Wallabies, registering 5-1 in that time.
Big names missing
France are without captain Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy while Australia are missing some big names such as James O’Connor and James Horwill.
A win would see fifth ranked France swap with England above them, regardless of their rivals' result against Fiji at Twickenham earlier in the day. With Fiji currently ranked 14th and 12.49 rating points behind their hosts, an England win will have no impact on either side's rating.
France and England, though, are separated by just 0.06 rating points and as the rankings reward a side beating a team above them, England’s matches against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in consecutive weeks will have more bearing.
An Irish win over the touring South Africans - ranked third - could leave France as high as third in the world, a position they occupied after reaching the RWC 2011 Final.
The seventh-ranked Irish have every reason to feel confident, having won three of their past four Tests against the Springboks, all of them in Dublin, although they are missing key figures like captain Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney through injury.
A Springbok win would allow Argentina to profit from their encounter with Wales. Having run Australia so close in their final match of The Rugby Championship, the Pumas could consolidate their fine form with a win over Wales and swap places with Ireland.
If France lose, though, then they could slip further from their top four goal with Wales climbing above them if they kick off their November campaign with victory over Argentina at the Millennium Stadium.
The battle to get into the five to eight banding will be just as hotly contested with Scotland's unbeaten tour in June reviving their hopes of avoiding two top teams as they did for RWC 2011, a tournament which saw them miss out on the quarter-finals for the first time.
Currently ranked ninth, Andy Robinson's side could not have a more difficult opener than against world champions New Zealand, a side they have never beaten in 28 attempts.
If they can hand the All Blacks their first loss in Europe - outside of Rugby World Cups - since November 2002 then they would enter the top eight - but then the challenge is to stay there with fixtures to come against South Africa and Tonga.
North or south success?
The All Blacks will be eager to bounce back from the 18-18 draw with Australia last month - a result which ended their hopes of setting a new record for consecutive Test victories during this tour - but a victory will not have any impact on their rating.
With defeat, Scotland's advantage over Samoa and Italy below them will shrink if they can taste victory over Canada in the IRB International Rugby Series in Colwyn Bay and against Tonga in Brescia respectively.
If all these permutations sound confusing, here are two more to consider: if there’s a southern hemisphere whitewash at the weekend - including Fiji upsetting England - then France and Argentina would be the beneficiaries with Los Pumas potentially climbing as high as fifth depending on the margin of victory in Cardiff.
On the other hand, if all the northern hemisphere teams were to win, Scotland would move into the top eight and it would be Argentina facing the prospect of a pool with two big guns at England 2015. South Africa could be the big losers in this scenario, potentially slipping from third to fifth.
This weekend, though, is not just about the 12 direct qualified teams for RWC 2015 as a number of nations hoping to join them through the global qualification process will also be in action and hoping to lay down a marker for the months ahead.
Portugal have the biggest chance for gain if they can beat Uruguay in Montevideo. They are currently six places below their hosts in 27th, but could actually end up above them if they were to win by more than 15 points.
- The IRB World Rankings are published every Monday at midday UK time.