Northern hemisphere a mix of new and old
A year into the rebuilding process after their deflating Rugby World Cup campaign, England have laid some solid foundation stones but are still arranging the materials before putting the main structure in place.
Coach Stuart Lancaster and his assistants have undoubtedly changed the culture of the squad and, bearing in mind the widespread changes of personnel, have achieved encouraging results and performances.
They remain very much a work in progress, however, with question marks over almost every position as Lancaster has made no secret that his approach is to build a team capable of winning the World Cup on home soil in 2015.
The dilemma is how much he can risk sacrificing in the name of experimentation particularly over the next month when England's results against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand will have such a tangible impact on their prospects three years down the line.
Assuming England have enough firepower to beat Fiji, encouraging performances and lively debuts will be scant consolation for the probably dire consequences should they lose the remaining three.
The seedings for the 2015 World Cup will be based on the world rankings on Dec. 3 - the draw is made in London on that day - and England are desperate to hold on to fourth place behind the three big southern hemisphere nations.
If they do so Lancaster's men would avoid the high probability of facing one of the three heavyweights in the pool phase of the tournament and they would also be likely to face a far easier quarterfinal.
France and Wales are breathing down England's neck in the rankings but the system is so complicated, with points gained weighted by the strength of opposition, that nobody is quite sure what combination of results will produce what order.
What is certain is that if England were to upset the odds and win all four Twickenham tests they would be assured of a top-four ranking.
That, however, looks a big ask for a team who lost two and drew one of their tests in South Africa in June and have won only one of the last nine home games against a Tri-Nations side.
Lancaster says the rankings will look after themselves so long as England produce the displays he feels they are capable of.
However, less than a year into the job after succeeding Martin Johnson, he is a long way from finding the sort of settled lineup that history shows is an essential ingredient of all World Cup-winning sides.
Injuries have played havoc with England's front row, with the absence of hooker Dylan Hartley from the entire series a real blow. Courtney Lawes is set to be fit for the Australia game but who partners him at lock is still up for debate.
Flanker Chris Robshaw has proved a great choice as captain, leading by example on and off the pitch although many observers feel he is better suited to the blindside than the number seven role he now fills in a back row that looks as unsettled as the front.
Lancaster is also some way from establishing his vital halfback combination.
Danny Care seems to be in pole position ahead of Ben Youngs and Lee Dickson at scrumhalf, with Toby Flood also back in flyhalf favour and Owen Farrell more likely to be fighting for a place in the centres where the midfield malaise continues.
Manu Tuilagi seems nailed on but in which position? If he stays at number 13, Lancaster can perm any one from half a dozen contenders to fill the 12 shirt.
Brad Barritt proved a defensive rock in the position last season but offers little of the sort of attacking invention that England will surely require to find a way through the brilliantly organised Tri-Nations defences.
Chris Ashton, suspended for the test against Fiji, is still assured of one of the wing berths despite the try deluge of his early days drying up.
Several contenders are vying for the other wing position. Ugo Monye, who won the last of his 13 caps more than two years ago, is back in the fold but with one try to his name and at the age of 29, it is hard to see him as the long-term answer.
Fullback too remains up for grabs. Alex Goode started there - with Ben Foden slotting into the left wing - in England's last game, the 14-14 draw with the Springboks in Port Elizabeth, but he is being pushed hard by Mike Brown, one of the form players in the Premiership this season for Harlequins.
That all adds up to a lot of uncertainty and, unless there is a shock recall for Jason Leonard, the likelihood of Lancaster achieving his goal of fielding a 2015 World Cup final team boasting 663 caps is already looking somewhat ambitious.
Injury-hit Ireland will get a glimpse of life without captain Brian O'Driscoll this month in a test series that will determine if they are seeded for the rugby World Cup in 2015 and may also decide Declan Kidney's future as coach.
Kidney is out of contract next year and a tenure that began with a Grand Slam victory in his first season hit a low point this year when a poor Six Nations ended in a drubbing by England and a tough tour to New Zealand concluded in a 60-0 humiliation.
The former Munster coach is under pressure to replicate the attacking rugby that has allowed Leinster to dominate the European club game but with Ireland's seat among the world's top eight nations at stake, he will take victory at any price.
Defeats to South Africa and Argentina twinned with a good November for lower-ranked Scotland or potentially even Samoa could see seventh-ranked Ireland slip out of the seedings for the next World Cup when the draw is made next month.
With it would go any hope of Kidney extending his reign beyond next year's Six Nations.
Ireland will have to do it the hard way too with O'Driscoll leading an absentee list that includes two European players of the year in Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien, and two usually guaranteed starters in Ulster forwards Stephen Ferris and Rory Best.
Former British and Irish Lions captain Paul O'Connell should shake off a back problem to start but the Munster lock, dogged by injury in recent years, has played only twice this season.
Luckily for Ireland, the Springboks, who are first up and have lost three of their last four games in Dublin, have an even deeper injury crisis with Bryan Habana, Juan Smith and Frans Steyn headlining the list of those unavailable.
MUCH AT STAKE
For Ireland, the injuries will at least force Kidney to look at who might one day replace the 33-year-old O'Driscoll whose midfield partnership with Leinster team mate Gordon D'Arcy, 32, has been virtually unbroken for almost a decade.
Munster utility man Keith Earls will likely get the nod ahead of Ulster's Darren Cave to replace the country's record try scorer while in-form young Munster flyer Simon Zebo may replace Kearney at fullback.
Mike McCarthy, Kevin McLoughlin and Chris Henry, who between them have five international starts, will likely battle it out for the back-row spaces vacated by O'Brien and Ferris.
Ferris, so influential in Ulster's run to the European Cup final last year, has not been fully ruled out of the Nov. 24 test against Argentina but will be unavailable for the 'A' game against Fiji a week earlier.
While much attention will focus on whether the increasingly commanding flyhalf Johnny Sexton will be given the free rein he enjoys at Leinster, Kidney's front-row concerns, exposed badly in March's 30-9 hammering by England, remain.
The Irish scrum was demolished that day after the team lost their only top-class tighthead prop Mike Ross to injury and should that happen again in the coming weeks, Ireland will call on a player who set foot in the country only 10 days ago.
New Zealander Michael Bent, who has yet to play for Leinster after signing at the end of the southern hemisphere season, was added to the international squad a day after moving to Dublin, with his Irish grandmother to thank for the surprise call-up
Italy take on rugby heavyweights New Zealand and Australia during November but coach Jacques Brunel believes they can continue to make progress on the field despite the huge task in front of them.
The Six Nations also-rans have the luck of facing Tonga first up on Nov. 10 in Brescia before the world champion All Blacks come to Rome on Nov. 17 and the Wallabies turn up on Nov. 24 in Florence.
Italy has experienced a surge in enthusiasm for rugby, with this year's matches against England and Scotland at Rome's Olympic Stadium garnering a combined total of 125,000 fans, but they remain a long way behind the sport's powerhouses.
"Over the last few years Italy has grown in stature, but we want to reach an even higher level," Frenchman Brunel told reporters.
"We have the ambition to impose our play on the opposition and to see if we are a good team we need to face the best teams in the world to see what we're worth."
Italy has a fairly inexperienced team, with 16 of the squad's 31 players having 20 caps or fewer while Francesco Minto and Tommaso Iannone have yet to play for the Azzurri.
Their narrow 19-15 Six Nations loss to England in February still hurts and the wastefulness that led to that painful defeat reared its head again in the 37-22 reverse to Argentina in San Juan in June.
They followed that loss with wins against the United States and Canada but at this stage in their development the Italians are above both North American sides in the world rankings and were expected to beat them.
"We played eight games so far (this year), winning three and letting slip at least a couple more wins against England in Rome and Argentina in San Juan. We simply need to stop wasting chances," added Brunel.
Brunel has a lot of good will from the Italian rugby public after they avoided their fifth consecutive Six Nations wooden spoon by beating Scotland 13-6 in March.
He is now laying the ground work for Italy to put on a better show at the 2015 World Cup in England after they failed to reach the knockout stages in New Zealand a year ago under former coach Nick Mallett.
Very few people expect anything but two heavy defeats to the Southern Hemisphere giants this month but the tests will be an indicator of how far Italy have come in a relatively short space of time having only been admitted to the Six Nations in 2000.
"The first match with Tonga needs to be very well prepared and for the other two we should make sure that it won't be a circus," said veteran Andrea Lo Cicero, among a core of experienced heads who hope to complement the youngsters.
"Everyone's talking about the All Blacks Show, but we're not cannon fodder. We're sportsmen and we'll take to the field to do our jobs. We respect them but on the pitch we'll make them respect us."
The pendulum of promise and inconsistency has bugged Scotland under Andy Robinson and maintaining momentum from a successful southern hemisphere tour will be foremost in the Englishman's mind for the November internationals.
With world champions New Zealand and South Africa visiting Murrayfield on successive weekends, Robinson has his work cut out but the resilient Scots can point to three notable wins in June as a sign that they have a platform to build on.
Scotland failed to make it out of their pool at last year's Rugby World Cup, then took the wooden spoon in the Six Nations after losing all five matches to leave Robinson pondering his future.
They came close against England, Wales and France but were then soundly beaten by Ireland before losing in Rome to Italy - a performance riddled with mistakes and ill-discipline that dogged them throughout the tournament.
Roll on a few months and Robinson, contracted until the 2015 World Cup, is in all probability sleeping sounder at night.
A youthful Scottish side upset Australia 9-6 in appalling conditions in Newcastle in early June, Greig Laidlaw kicking a penalty against a fierce wind two minutes after the siren to kickstart their Australasia tour.
They then held off a furious late challenge by Fiji to win 37-25 before rounding off by securing a 17-16 win, helped by a stoppage-time try, over Pacific Nations Cup champions Samoa.
Maintaining their winning run is highly unlikely against the All Blacks who are first up on Sunday.
The Scots have never beaten the men in black in 28 attempts, their only crumbs coming from draws in 1964 and 1983, the latter a 25-25 finish in which Peter Dods missed a last-minute conversion that would have won the game for Scotland.
New Zealand romped to a 49-3 win on their last visit in 2010 but Scotland bounced back a week later to surprise the Springboks 21-17, showing that they can never be underestimated at home.
Scotland, who also host Tonga in Aberdeen on Nov. 24, are ranked ninth in the world but are unlikely to break into the top eight before next month's 2015 World Cup pool allocation draw, meaning they will not avoid one of the world's top-two ranked sides.
Hooker Ross Ford captained the side Down Under but Robinson has handed the reins for the November internationals to Kelly Brown who will make his 50th start but his first for Scotland since picking up a head injury against Argentina in the World Cup.
The back row forward was handed the armband in January but then suffered a bad leg injury, breaking his fibula in a Heineken Cup match while playing for his club side Saracens.
Robinson said: "Kelly Brown is an inspirational person. He has an aura, confidence and belief about him and a firm understanding of the game.
"He has been a very persistent performer for Scotland. It's because of these qualities that he has been appointed Scotland captain."
Robinson will look to back-row forward David Denton, one of the few Scottish performers to emerge with any credit from the dismal Six Nations campaign, to build on his breakthrough season.
Zimbabwe-born Denton missed the Australasia tour through injury but made an such an impact with his aggressive running in the Six Nations to suggest that he has the credentials to be a future British & Irish Lion.
The evolving halfback pairing of scrumhalf Mike Blair and Laidlaw are also key to Scotland's hopes of adding creativity to complement a solid pack of forwards.
Laidlaw has yet to fully convince since making his first international start against Wales in February, but performed consistently with the boot on the southern hemisphere tour.
France are going for the kill in much-awaited tests against Australia and Argentina in November despite entering a transitional period as they look for new leaders ahead of the next World Cup.
"We have 15, 16 months of transition," manager Philippe Saint Andre told reporters as Les Bleus prepare to take on the Wallabies at the Stade de France on Saturday.
The fixture will be followed by matches against Argentina in Lille on Nov. 17 and Samoa in Paris a week later.
Saint Andre is looking for the new generation of France leaders to take over from William Servat, Lionel Nallet, Sebastien Chabal, Imanol Harinordoquy, Julien Bonnaire, Aurelien Rougerie and Dimitri Yachvili.
"They had been identified as the bosses. These guys have either retired or they went to the garage for repair. So we're in a transitional period, we know that. It makes for an even more exciting challenge," Saint Andre said.
The match against Australia is the most eagerly anticipated in France.
"We haven't beaten them since November 2005. It would be good to do it again," the manager said.
Since that game, Australia have beaten France five times, including a 59-16 battering at the Stade de France two years ago.
"We will play at home against the number two team in the world. It is a huge challenge. We are fifth, we will do everything we can to win this match," Saint Andre added.
France are fifth in the IRB rankings, meaning that if they do not improve before the 2015 World Cup they will be in band two and face either New Zealand, Australia, South Africa or England in the group stage.
Saint Andre named his 23-man squad to face Australia by narrowing down a 34-man preliminary group in unusual fashion, using a match between squad members to whittle down his choices.
"It was interesting, everyone played the game and we also had a referee, Romain Poite," he explained.
"It was not a test match but on Saturday some of them have not slept that well and the day after they had a little bit less energy than the others.
"The goal was to dig very deep physically because we know that the Australians usually make their opponents blow after some 60 minutes."
Saint Andre had called up several young guns for the training camp and said they were so "amazing" that he "had a headache" when he had to name his final squad.
"We eventually favoured experience for this game against Australia because having an 18 or 20-year-old start against Australia can be a poisonous gift," said Saint Andre.
However, France will have a few youngsters or debutants on the team sheet after fullback Brice Dulin, scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud, lock Jocelino Suta and prop Yannick Forestier were retained.
Usual captain Thierry Dusautoir was not picked because of a knee injury so Pascal Pape deputises as skipper while a question mark hangs over who be the France halfbacks against Australia.
"I have my pair in mind," said Saint Andre without elaborating.
Scrumhalf Morgan Parra is expected to be fit although he took a knock last week, while Saint Andre has to choose between Frederic Michalak and Francois Trinh-Duc at flyhalf.
Should Parra be ruled out, Machenaud would start, probably alongside Trinh-Duc with utility back Michalak on the bench to cover both positions.
A debate familiar to generations of Welsh rugby fans was resolved this week in favour of Scarlets' flyhalf Rhys Priestland following the national team's annual training camp in Poland.
Priestland sparkled at last year's World Cup with a series of commanding displays after he had been installed as the first choice in a position holding a special status in Welsh rugby lore.
His subsequent form faltered and uncertain performances during the summer tour of Australia and a lack of consistency for his club led to robust arguments in Wales over the preferred occupant of the cherished number 10 jersey for the November internationals.
Ospreys' standoff Dan Biggar was recalled to a 35-man squad for the rigours of the spartan camp in Spala but, in the end, the selectors decided to stick with Priestland for consecutive matches against Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.
James Hook, who did not travel to Poland because of his commitments with French club Perpignan, will provide the flyhalf cover this Saturday with Biggar omitted entirely from the matchday squad for the opening match against the Pumas at the Millennium Stadium.
Priestland will partner Tavis Knoyle, selected ahead of British and Irish Lions scrumhalf Mike Phillips who has been relegated to the bench.
Wales have gradually introduced strength in depth across their squad but because of the inevitable injury toll prop Adams Jones (knee injury) and flanker Dan Lydiate (broken ankle) will miss all four matches. Loose forward and former captain Ryan Jones will sit out Saturday's match with a shoulder injury.
Lydiate's ferocious tackling won him the Six Nations player of the tournament award this year, after Wales completed their third grand slam in eight years, while the tousle-haired Jones is the best tighthead in the British Isles.
Assistant Rob Howley will coach Wales while Warren Gatland concentrates on his Lions' duties before next year's tour of Australia, although the latter will take charge of the side for the match against his native New Zealand on Nov. 24.
Gatland's mission since he took over as head coach five years ago has been to mould a team capable of routinely beating the best in the world, which at the moment means defeating the southern hemisphere giants. Results, though, against teams south of the equator remain uniformly discouraging.
Wales were one of the form teams at the World Cup but were still beaten by South Africa in the pool stages and by Australia in the playoff for third and fourth place.
This year, although only 11 points separated the teams overall, they were whitewashed in a three-test series against the Wallabies.
Wales won three of their first four internationals against New Zealand in the days when tours were separated by decades rather than months but they have not beaten the world champions since 1953.
Neither of their other two matches will be easy.
Argentina, who were finally admitted to a regional tournament this year, will be all the stronger for the experience of playing in the first Rugby Championship against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
Samoa famously defeated Wales at the 1991 and 1999 World Cups and remain one of the more physically combative sides in world rugby.
Welsh rugby historian Huw Richards said that although they had run Australia close this year, Wales had still lost their last seven matches against the Wallabies.
"We seem to be finding new ways of losing," he said. "It's high time we started winning. Instead of being an occasional power in the northern hemisphere we need to start beating the southern hemisphere."