Between the British and Irish Lions’ tour of Australia and the Rugby Championship, this summer has offered up a helping of rugby excellence that’s difficult to match.
There’s no rest for the wicked, however, and next weekend will see the November internationals get underway, with sides from both hemispheres as eager as ever to test their strength against one another.
This summer has served well in giving us a decent idea of how strong each nation will be heading into the autumn Tests, some showing more promise than others in their most recent encounters.
With that being the case, read on for power rankings of the world’s top 10 at the moment, recent form and potential in the matches ahead being the most significant factors for a country’s position.
With a player of Sergio Parisse’s indomitable talent leading them, Italy will attempt to overturn the bad luck that’s shadowed them of late, with the Azzurri losing their last three matches in a row.
After winning two of their five Six Nations outings earlier this year, those losses to South Africa, Samoa and Scotland will have been a sorrier step back for a team just as they seemed to be on a rise.
The most difficult fixture of Italy’s autumn is undoubtedly the opener against Australia, followed by matches against Fiji and Argentina.
Home advantage will only do the hosts so much good in the coming examinations, where the Fijians hold the most promising chance of victory, closely followed by the Pumas, who went another Rugby Championship without managing a win.
As aforementioned, Argentina’s Rugby Championship consisted of six defeats from six, pinning them near the bottom of our rankings.
With Santiago Phelan having stepped down from his position as head coach since the tournament came to a close, the squad will also be in a state of disarray.
Over the course of the Southern Hemisphere tournament, Argentina’ greatest asset was their ability to start games at a high intensity, but they were often unable to maintain this tempo against the likes of South Africa and New Zealand in particular.
Daniel Hourcade will have a heap of pressure on his shoulders heading into these matchups but will also need time to acclimate to his new position, with matches against England, Wales and Italy not holding great prospects.
Scott Johnson comes into these autumn encounters with a mixed assortment in his squad, combining a raft of youthful prospects hoping to break the international mould with a selection of more established faces.
A 30-29 win over Italy was a positive note to end the side’s summer on after losses against South Africa and Samoa, who deserve an honourable mention for their results in recent months.
Like Italy, the Scots managed to win just two of their five Six Nations encounters, but it was good enough to see the side away from their usual position of wooden spoon contenders and into something more encouraging.
While those results may have come as a result of their European counterparts going through a period of transition, the Scots can nonetheless have bright hopes heading into fixtures against Japan, Australia and South Africa.
Under Johnson, Scotland have now started to ebb away from the defensive reputation they’ve gained in the last few years and are actually beginning to play more fluid, attacking rugby.
Two wins from six may not have been the ratio Australia were hoping for heading into this summer’s Rugby Championship, but Ewen McKenzie’s men will treat the autumn international as a chance at evolving under the new regime.
Both those wins came against Argentina, but even some of the more miserable results produced some positives for the Wallabies, not least of which being the recent 41-33 loss to New Zealand.
Matt Toomua, Tevita Kuridrani and Quade Cooper have all been particularly encouraging in recent weeks and should the back line indeed adapt a more cohesive feel, Australia can still be a bother to their opponents in the next six weeks.
The Northern Hemisphere sides may not pose the same, intense challenge as the likes of South Africa and the All Blacks, meaning McKenzie’s men should get a better grip of the ball and be permitted to showcase some more of their talent.
Francois Trinh-Duc once again misses out on a place in the French training squad in what’s probably Phillipe Saint-Andre’s biggest omission for the coming series.
Along with Ireland, Les Bleus also had a very damaging Six Nations this year and are continuing to rebuild, having also lost three times to New Zealand over the summer.
Now is when the real effect of the Top 14’s massive influx of foreign players will begin to reveal its true ramifications and if the French national team will suffer or not.
There is a concern that the increase in numbers of South African and other European players would have a negative impact on just how successful France can be on the international stage.
That being said, some of the French top flight’s lesser teams, not as involved in the huge financial investments of late, are continuing to contribute their share of home-grown players as well as the customary offering from the league’s big guns.
In the coming weeks, Saint-Andre will start to piece together a side only two years after making the Rugby World Cup final, yet slipping quite far down the rankings.
Josef Schmidt is another manager taking his first steps in a true Test environment this autumn, with the New Zealander’s time at Leinster a hugely promising foundation for the Shamrocks to work from.
Ireland are unbeaten in their last four matches but had one of their more disappointing Six Nations campaign earlier this year.
David Kearney, Jack McGrath and James Coughlan make up the uncapped contingent of the Irish squad, which contains another 11 players with their cap tally yet to reach double digits.
In Jonny Sexton, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan, Schmidt has a bevy of fine options at fly-half and a number of in-form stars currently impressing at Leinster, Munster and Ulster, Rob Henshaw being the only Connacht player to feature in the roster.
With their current record, it’s also important to remember that Ireland’s last two wins came against Canada and the United States, so they are yet to receive a real test of their strength since the Six Nations.
Fixtures against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand promise a whole other level of competition, but with a blend of promise and experience in the squad, Schmidt will begin his journey in once again building Ireland into a title-worthy side this autumn.
Stuart Lancaster has the benefit of having not too many evident holes in a side that’s retained a great number of the players who have performed well in the last year or so.
Between a fruitful Six Nations championship and sending a good amount of players on the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, England’s squad is beginning to gain a good amount of experience across the board.
The most noticeable absence of experience for England lies in midfield, where the uncapped trio of Henry Trinder, Joel Tomkins and Luther Burrell are set to compete for places in the centre while Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt sit out with injury.
Along with those three is Kyle Eastmond, with only two international appearances to his name, leaving five-times capped Billy Twlevetrees as the most experienced specialist centre in the squad.
Lancaster’s side won both matches on their tour of Argentina over the summer and gave some much-needed playing time to a number of players who are set to start having a much bigger impact on the national team’s success.
Wales were arguably the biggest influence of Warren Gatland’s successful British and Irish Lions tour of Australia this summer, sending as many as 15 international Down Under.
Now Gatland returns to his national team role with Robin McBryde having taken good care of the team during their trip to Japan over the summer, handing caps to a selection of previously untapped sources.
The Six Nations champions have as much reason as any other to be hopeful about their upcoming fixtures against South Africa, Argentina, Tonga and Australia, especially given that their roster is made up of players with huge pedigree to their name already.
That being said, there’s a promising batch of up-and-coming talent in the side, while the likes of Rhodri, Scott and Liam Williams could yet go on to gain further reckoning in Gatland’s side over the next few weeks.
Although one win and one loss to Japan doesn’t speak wildly of a great side, Wales’ returning stars are once again set to have a big say on national matters, with the Southern Hemisphere sides locked in their sights.
October saw Ellis Park play host to “The Final” between South Africa and New Zealand, a match that lived up to its billing and was described by some as the best match of rugby seen in some years.
Short and simple, the encounter confirmed that the Springboks are one of the best sides in the world and Heyneke Meyer’s squad are bound to pose an issue for all the Northern Hemisphere teams they face in coming weeks.
Over the course of the Rugby Championship, Meyer’s side were seldom shown to be the inferior outfit and displayed a formidable sense of balance across their side.
In fact, Meyer’s unsurprisingly strong pack was only bettered by the power of the back line at times, with Jean De Villiers, Zane Kirchner, Bryan Habana and Willie Le Roux all impressing greatly over the course of the competition.
Argentina and Australia were both shown up on several occasions by South Africa, who showcased their classic ability to win by fine margins as well as stretch their legs when necessary, putting 73 points past the Pumas in their opening fixture.
Wales, Scotland and France await the Springboks this autumn, none of which pose an obstacle that Meyer’s men can’t have realistic hopes of overcoming.
The best side in the world right now—and by some margin at that—New Zealand extended their Rugby Championship record to 12 wins from 12 this summer.
The All Blacks’ dominance over South Africa in the final encounter between the two sides handed Steve Hansen’s side their second successive Rugby Championship title to go along with the Bledisloe Cup they’d already won earlier in the competition.
The reigning world champions have continued to produce a factory line of talent since 2011, so much so that they could probably rest a few key players in their line-up and still field an incredibly threatening XV against any other team.
However, it’s the sense of superstar quality that runs throughout the entire roster that makes Hansen’s team as good as it is, unbeaten in 2013 and with a good chance of finishing the year with that being the case.
Japan, France, England and Ireland await the All Blacks and are much more transitional periods in terms of squad availability and general strength, making for a promising next few months in the New Zealand calendar.