2014 is a crucial year in rugby as the last full calendar year before the next World Cup.
By its end, international selectors will want to be settled on their first-choice combinations and players will be desperate to prove themselves worthy of a place in World Cup squads.
On the domestic front, 2014 should see the disputes about European competition sorted once and for all, and the big issues around player safety will need to be addressed.
Time to get the crystal ball out for the new year and see what 2014 holds for rugby.
The marketing men at Gloucester will have to have a rethink about their pre-match entertainment after a giant rugby ball knocked off one of the crossbars last weekend.
Kick-off for their clash with Worcester was delayed while the goal posts were fixed. Expect a return to cheerleaders and mascots in 2014.
Exeter Chiefs boss Rob Baxter claimed the title as Aviva Premiership Coach of the Year last season and, on current form, will scoop the gong again.
Baxter’s men continue to mix it in the upper echelons of the league and have given a fine account of themselves in Europe.
Baxter was taken on tour by Stuart Lancaster with England last summer and must surely be a contender for the Red Rose job in the future.
May has the talent to force himself into the England side. His challenge has been consistency, but he is now proving he has what it takes week in, week out, and is hotly tipped to make it into the main England squad when it is picked in January. With Christian Wade cruelly sidelined by injury, May’s chance to lay claim to one of the wide berths is right in front of him.
The former England under-20 fly-half (pictured) has impressed in the chances he has had for Exeter this season and earned rave reviews for his performance against Toulon in the Heineken Cup.
Under the tutelage of Rob Baxter, who is more than happy to give young talent a chance down at Sandy Park, Slade’s future looks bright.
Kvesic deserves a shot at showing England what an out-and-out No. 7 can do for the side. If he doesn’t get it during the Six Nations, he should get it in New Zealand if England are forced to travel sans several of their first-choice players due to the Premiership final.
Time to pin colours to the mast and predict top try scorers in all three major European leagues:
Aviva Premiership: David Strettle, Saracens, currently on six, will finish on 12.
RaboDirect Pro12: Gareth Davies, Scarlets, currently on five, will finish on 11.
Top 14: Matt Giteau, Toulon, currently on six, will finish on 12.
One of the biggest disappointments of 2013 has to be the performances of Racing Metro.
Another of the big-spending Top 14 clubs, Racing have fallen into the trap that Toulon seemed to avoid, collecting a host of big international names but failing to form them into a team.
The money is all well and good for the players who join these clubs, but a team seemingly as disparate as the Parisians can’t be much fun to play for.
Additionally, Sexton has had an early indication that his body will take much more of a battering than it did in the protected environs of the Pro12. Put your money on an early return to Ireland.
Brown has been brilliant for club and country so far this season.
Even when Quins went through a rough patch earlier this season, Brown was performing admirably, and his displays for England in the autumn internationals were exceptional.
He is nailed on for the No. 15 jersey in the forthcoming Six Nations, and if he continues to shine as Quins shoot for a place in the Premiership playoffs, Brown should earn the individual accolade this season.
Ireland’s rugby authorities have declared their desire to bid for the tournament in 2023, and it looks as though they have a groundswell of support from the government and the Gaelic Athletic Association, whose grounds would also be used.
A decision won’t be made until 2017, but expect the contenders to be firmed up next year.
The Scots have not had their hands on the old trophy since 2008, but this could be their year.
England will still be searching for the right combinations in their back line, and the Scots will put them under intense pressure.
It’ll be a tight game in poor conditions, decided by kicks, and the Scots will edge it.
With players leaving in their droves and a few more, such as Rhys Priestland, uncertain what the future holds as their contracts head toward their end, Welsh rugby is in a mess.
The regions are threatening to break away from their union in a bid to stop the loss of money each time a player leaves the country, while the WRU would prefer to centrally contract players to gain greater control.
The only certainty at the current moment is that in 2014 we’ll see this settled in court.
New Zealand’s 100 per cent record in 2013 was the first of the professional era, and it will not be repeated in 2014.
South Africa are a side on an upward curve, and they will not let the All Blacks walk off their home field with another victory.
It will be another year of winless pain in The Rugby Championship for Argentina.
New Zealand and South Africa are too far ahead to come a cropper in South America, which leaves Australia as their best chance of getting a win.
However, the Wallabies look to have too much firepower and, as they proved against Wales, seem to have mastered the art of avoiding scrummaging for large parts of a match.
It is hard to see anything but a big, fat zero in the "W" column once again for Los Pumas.
There seems no way back for the Heineken Cup.
The English clubs are out and are talking to the Welsh about an Anglo-Welsh league. But the Welsh are still at the table with the other Celts, France and Italy as they try to thrash out who should be in charge of a possible new 20-team tournament.
That plan, according to The Telegraph’s Gavin Mairs, is a plan dead in the water.
It would seem now the only likely prediction to make about European rugby next year is that there won’t be any.
London Welsh sit top of the Championship with fellow Exiles London Scottish snapping at their heels, and when the pair met last weekend, the Scots came out on top on Welsh’s territory.
This column is tipping Scottish to make it to the top flight for the first time in the professional era.
Warren Gatland’s men face New Zealand, South Africa and Australia next autumn, as well as touring South Africa for a two-Test series in the summer.
This column boldly predicts they will get another five defeats on their record against the big guns of the South.
South Africa at home will be too strong for a group of players at the end of a long hard season, and in the autumn, there could be problems around player release following the fine slapped on Northampton for letting George North play in the final test of Wales’ 2013 autumn programme.
Rugby fans will have to have spent the last few weeks in a dark room if they’ve missed the discussion about the looming spectre over the game.
Concussions are the hot potato right now, with the media spotlight shining on the issue at all levels of the game. It started when Scottish international Rory Lamont revealed to The Scotsman that players were cheating the new concussion protocols being trialled by the International Rugby Board.
Concerns grew when Dr. Barry O’Driscoll quit the IRB in protest at the five-minute test being used to assess players suffering concussions during games.
Andy Bull of The Guardian uncovered the story of youngster Ben Robinson’s sad death due to second-impact syndrome after taking several blows to the head in a school match.
The rugby media is all over the issue at present. The weight of evidence suggests the game’s administrators need to act to protect the players in a way they are not at the moment.
Kieran Read is all set for another stellar year.
The All Blacks No. 8 was outstanding in 2013. Given licence to roam the open spaces, he became a deadly attacking weapon for New Zealand, scoring plenty of tries and creating more with his handling skills.
If anyone came close for impact on a side, it was Israel Folau.
The rugby league convert was a revelation for the Waratahs and then the Wallabies, carving the Lions up twice in the summer and having an excellent tour of the Northern Hemisphere.
The good news for the Wallabies and bad news for everyone else is that, with just a season under his belt, Folau has plenty of room for improvement.
He could push Read all the way for the IRB Player of the Year award in 2014.
Sarries look in ominous shape as 2013 draws to a close.
They battered Leicester at home last weekend and lead the Premiership by three points.
Few would bet against their presence in the semi-finals come the end of the regular season, and they will be smarting from their last-four reverse to Northampton last season.
The Red Rose Brigade will endure a sobering tour of New Zealand in the summer.
They will not be helped by losing a number of their best players for the first Test on June 7 to the Aviva Premiership final, which is played a week earlier.
Should Northampton and Leicester meet again, it would be the worst-case scenario, with as many as 13 players who could have started that Test engaged for their clubs. That won’t happen obviously, as this column has just predicted a Saracens title.
However, Sarries could also provide up to six England contenders, so their presence in the final would be similarly damaging. History shows that if you’re going to succeed on tour in New Zealand, the first Test is the chance to catch them cold as they begin their international season.
Heavy defeat for what could effectively be a second-string side will point to a 3-0 series battering.
After Glasgow set the early pace, the Irish powerhouse has risen to the top of the pile in the cross-border competition.
What’s more, they have the depth to stay there. Despite back-to-back wins over Perpignan in the Heineken Cup, they may just lack the power to go all the way in Europe once they collide with the big French sides.
That means they could well be able to concentrate on claiming their domestic crown, which they haven’t won since 2011.
After two years of final defeats, Toulon will break their duck in the Top 14 this year and give Jonny Wilkinson the send-off he deserves.
Wilkinson has said he hasn’t yet made his mind up about whether this will be his last campaign, but if he can add the league title to his Heineken Cup medal pocketed last season, you wouldn’t blame him for calling it a day.
Toulon’s home form has been imperious this campaign and it will provide the foundation for them to make it third time lucky.
As if New Zealand’s well of rugby union talent wasn’t deep enough, their latest raid on the 13-man code has yielded a player of rare ability.
Benji Marshall will dazzle in the Super Rugby competition in 2014, but he will have a long way to go to earn his All Black stripes.
The queue is long and distinguished behind Dan Carter for the No. 10 shirt, and Marshall will need more than one good season to jump it.
The Chiefs have ruled the roost in the Southern Hemisphere for the last two years.
Their squad looks capable of doing it again in 2014, with the addition of the returning Sonny Bill Williams providing another weapon to its arsenal.
Their blend of experienced campaigners like Liam Messam and Mils Muliaina with rising All Blacks stars Aaron Cruden, Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick should prove hard to beat once again.
The men from the Massif Central look the boys to beat in Europe.
They fell at the last in 2013 when they lost in the final to Toulon despite outscoring them two tries to one.
Having been denied in three consecutive Top 14 finals, Clermont finally won the national title in 2010, so they know what it’s like to learn from defeat.
Les Bleus are predictable only for their unpredictability, which makes forecasting their Six Nations fortunes something of a fool’s errand.
However, their fixtures look favourable this season. They face injury-hit England first in Paris as well as Ireland and Italy at home.
Their toughest assignment is Friday night in Cardiff, which could be where the Grand Slam goes belly up.
But the championship will still be theirs.
You have to go back to the 2008 Six Nations to pinpoint the moment Danny Cipriani became the great hope of English rugby.
The then Wasps youngster ousted Jonny Wilkinson from the starting No. 10 jersey and put in a virtuoso display at Twickenham that day.
Since then, he exiled himself to Australia, got in a bother for breaking a curfew, returned to England early, had a scrape with a bus and, at long last, seems to have found the sort of consistency and dependability all English rugby fans had hoped for when he first burst on the scene.
Since joining Sale Sharks, Cipriani has been increasingly impressive, with astute judge Dean Ryan outlining the fly-half’s potential to once again be England’s man at No. 10.