Welcome back to the November Test series.
After last year's Autumn Nations Cup and the delayed Tri Nations, the northern and southern hemisphere nations will finally come together across Europe for a busy schedule of Test matches.
As it stands, the top three spots in the rankings are all held by the southern powerhouses. However, playing at home in conditions they know and love, the Home Unions and France will each fancy their chances of a rise up the Test ladder.
So what's been going on this year? And exactly what shape is each nation from the current top 10 in?
Read on as we bring you up to speed.
No. 1 - South Africa
Tests: Wales, Nov. 6; Scotland, Nov. 13; England, Nov. 20.
Having emerged triumphant from a dramatic British & Irish Lions series, and back-to-back wins over the Pumas, an unusually inaccurate Springboks team then failed to adapt to Australia's width and speed of recycle in successive defeats to the Wallabies. But South Africa raised their game again to face the All Blacks, with late penalty goals deciding two hugely physical and memorable encounters that finished one win apiece.
The Springbok blueprint for success hasn't changed, and no matter of online chatter about the style of their play will force coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus into a change of thinking. When it is executed with accuracy, the Springboks' mixture of tactical kicking, relentless breakdown pressure from the "bomb squad", and lineout superiority, is incredibly tough to wear down, as the All Blacks discovered in the closing weeks of the Rugby Championship.
The Boks will be hoping Handre Pollard has shaken off the worst of his form slump from his time in Australia, however, particularly with the indefatigable Faf de Klerk missing the November Tests through a hip injury. The Boks are also still without brilliant winger Cheslin Kolbe and 2019 World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit, who were both badly missed during the Rugby Championship. At their very best, the Boks are capable of a November sweep.
No. 2 - New Zealand
Tests: Wales, Oct. 30; Italy, Nov. 7; Ireland, No. 14; France, Nov. 21.
Last week's training run in Washington D.C. extended the All Blacks' season record to 10-1 for 2021, with a last-gasp loss to the Springboks in the Rugby Championship finale the only blemish in what is Ian Foster's second season in charge. The coach was mid-year granted a two-year extension through to the next World Cup, just reward for retaining the Bledisloe Cup and Tri Nations/Rugby Championship crowns in each of the past two years.
On the paddock, the All Blacks are without their key backline lynchpin, Aaron Smith, for their northern tour. The veteran No. 9, who had been in sensational touch this year, remained in New Zealand for the birth of his second child after the Bledisloe Cup, and then was given the chance for some extended family time. Finlay Christie started against the States as a result, but you should expect Brad Weber and TJ Perenara to fight out the starting position for bigger Tests later in November.
Sam Cane, meanwhile, cautiously made his return from a pectoral injury on the weekend after six months out; Sam Whitelock, however, has been installed as the tour captain. Just where Foster lands on his back-row composition for the Tests against Ireland and France carries huge intrigue - so too whether the All Blacks can better manage the aerial assault that brought the Springboks success in both Townsville and the Gold Coast. Lock Brodie Retallick has also spoken of the need for greater focus and execution in the All Blacks' lineout drive, after the pack had little success with the rolling maul against South Africa.
Nipping at the Boks' heels, the All Blacks will be ready to pounce for the No. 1 ranking should South Africa slip up in any of its three November Tests.
No. 3 - Australia
Tests: Scotland, Nov. 7; England, Nov. 13; Wales, Nov. 20.
Dave Rennie has brought significant improvement to the Wallabies in just his second year in charge, coupled with changes on and off the field that have propelled Australia to a five-match winning streak. While it was far from convincing, the Wallabies' 32-23 win over Japan last weekend reflected the team's set-piece growth and ability to close games out, something that was badly missing in Rennie's first season.
Earlier in the year, Australia boosted their confidence with a 2-1 series win over France in July. They then however quickly received a reality check from the All Blacks who romped away with a sweep of the Bledisloe Cup.
But the return of Samu Kerevi in the series' final Test in Perth was to prove a turning point as the Wallabies then went on to record four straight wins to close out the Rugby Championship on the back of the centre's powerhouse running. Quade Cooper's return also provided backline stability.
Cue another twist in the Wallabies' season, as Kerevi and Suntory teammate Sean McMahon decided to withdraw from the U.K. leg of Australia's spring tour. Quade Cooper is expected to follow suit. How the Wallabies manage Kerevi's absence, in particular, will go a long way to deciding whether their current 7-4 record for 2021 takes a hit or potentially even finishes with a squared ledger.
Northern rugby fans should keep an eye on back-rower Rob Valetini, who has grown with every Test in the gold jersey this season, while the return of Will Skelton and Rory Arnold should stiffen up the Wallabies pack.
No. 4 - England
Tests: Tonga, Nov. 6; Australia, Nov. 13; South Africa, Nov. 20.
Eddie Jones has drawn a line in the sand with his England squad for the November Tests. Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola and George Ford are all exiled, while he has welcomed in a host of young prospects as he moves this England team onto their next stage.
They have Tonga, Australia and South Africa lying in wait, and will be captained by Owen Farrell, who will likely feature at inside centre alongside the outstanding Marcus Smith at No. 10. Smith is just one of several exciting prospects to keep an eye on over the course of the November Tests with Sale scrum-half Raffi Quirke likely to feature, as is Newcastle winger Adam Radwan and Leicester fullback Freddie Steward. But their build-up was tainted by injuries to Luke Cowan-Dickie and Anthony Watson.
After a Six Nations which saw England finish fifth, and comfortable wins in the summer over the USA and Canada, England expect three from three this November from their new-look side. It'll also be a new-look England coaching set-up behind the team, with Jones now joined by Martin Gleeson, Richard Cockerill, Matt Proudfoot and former Brisbane Broncos coach Anthony Seibold.
No. 5 - Ireland
Tests: Japan, Nov. 6; New Zealand, Nov. 13; Argentina, Nov. 21.
After a summer which saw them defeat Japan 39-31 and ease past the USA 71-10, expect to see a few of those fresh faces thrown into the mix for the November internationals, but this will be evolution, rather than revolution for Ireland. The Andy Farrell blueprint was laid out against England back in the final match of the Six Nations - a game Ireland won 32-18. That's the Ireland the fans will want to see in their three Tests this autumn against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina.
Ireland have their injury concerns with captain Johnny Sexton currently nursing a hip injury, so Harry Byrne or Joey Carbery will be in the mix to start at least one of the three Tests at fly-half. Of the returning British & Irish Lions, Robbie Henshaw is yet to play this season due to a foot injury. But Simon Zebo earns a recall having last featured for Ireland in 2017.
Six of the players who won their first caps during the summer series have been included in the squad, with Robert Baloucoune, Byrne, Gavin Coombes, James Hume, Tom O'Toole and Nick Timoney all named, while there are two uncapped players named in Leinster duo Dan Sheehan and Ciaran Frawley. Expect to see a similar spine of the team that dominated England back in March as Ireland look to make it three from three this autumn.
No. 6 - France
Tests: Argentina, Nov. 6; Georgia, Nov. 14; New Zealand, Nov. 20.
With their home World Cup two years out, Fabien Galthie's side will look to put down a statement this autumn against Argentina, New Zealand and Georgia. They fell 2-1 to Australia in a thrilling summer series but will look for a clean sweep this November.
With Charles Ollivon injured, Antoine Dupont will captain the side, having been picked ahead of Gael Fickou, Gregory Alldritt and Julien Marchand. Elsewhere, keep an eye on the fly-half situation and whether Matthieu Jalibert will get the not ahead of Romain Ntamack. Then there's also the interesting subplot of which uncapped players will force their way in, with second-row Thibaud Flament at the forefront there.
France will be without Uini Atonio and Virimi Vakatawa through injury. This will be a true acid test of where France are, with the match against the All Blacks the barometer to judge whether they are on the right path to be challengers for rugby's biggest prize in 2023.
No. 7 - Scotland
Tests: Tonga, Oct. 30; Australia, Nov. 7; South Africa, No. 13; Japan, Nov. 20.
This autumn will see us learn more about Scotland's depth ahead of the 2023 World Cup, with Gregor Townsend's men facing four matches. Up first is Tonga on October 30 - a match falling outside the international window - so Townsend is unable to pick Scotland players based in England or France. As a result, there will be plenty of new faces on show for that opener, and expect that to continue in their remaining three matches with 12 uncapped players in their 42-man squad for the autumn series as a whole.
Sale's Ewan Ashman, Bath's Josh Bayliss, Glasgow's Rory Darge, Sharks' Dylan Richardson, and Edinburgh quartet Luke Crosbie, Jamie Hodgson, Marshall Sykes and Pierre Schoeman are all included as forwards. Glasgow Warriors' Jamie Dobie, Rufus McLean, Ross Thompson, and Sione Tuipulotu are the other four uncapped players.
Once Tonga have visited Murrayfield, Townsend's side have Australia, South Africa and Japan up next, where the likes of Chris Harris, Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Jonny Gray, Rory Sutherland, Duhan van der Merwe, and Adam Hastings will come back into the mix. Scotland will be without and Mark Bennett due to injury.
Given Scotland's gradual improvement under Townsend, they'll expect at least three victories from four this autumn but like the other home unions, they face the challenge of getting their Lions contingent up to speed after their delayed start to the season.
No. 8 - Argentina
Tests: France, Nov. 6; Italy, Nov. 13; Ireland, Nov. 21.
It was not a happy Rugby Championship campaign for the Pumas, who were again forced to complete the entire tournament on the road. Six straight defeats have all but wiped the memory of their stellar performances of 2020 when, despite significant hurdles, they defeated the All Blacks, and twice drew with the Wallabies in a truncated Tri Nations. Six players and two staff were also caught up in a state border breach ahead of their Test with Australia on the Gold Coast.
Former skipper Pablo Matera was among those border busters, but he has still been included in the Pumas touring squad alongside prop Santiago Medrano. Fly-half Nico Sanchez should also be available, after he missed the closing three rounds of the Rugby Championship through injury.
Two years out from the World Cup, coach Mario Ledesma won't want his side's losing streak to really take root, putting huge pressure on the second of their three November Tests, against Italy, as matches against France and Ireland appear tough assignments. The Pumas were well off the pace in the Rugby Championship, but should be better suited to the style of play up north.
No. 9 - Wales
Tests: New Zealand, Oct. 30; South Africa, Nov. 6; Fiji, Nov. 14; Australia, Nov. 20.
Wayne Pivac's Six Nations champions face a brutal November with New Zealand, South Africa and Australia all coming to town, and the squad will have a familiar look with just two uncapped players in the 38-man party. Scarlets prop WillGriff John and Exeter Chiefs' 19-year-old second-row Christ Tshiunza will both hope to make their debuts, but Wales have got the spine of their team already established ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Alun Wyn Jones will look to add to his astonishing tally of 148 caps this autumn, and he is joined in the squad by their British & Irish Lions contingent. There's also a recall for Rhys Priestland, who last featured for Wales in 2017, while Gareth Anscombe will look to play his first Test for Wales in two years after recovering from the major knee injury he suffered in August 2019.
But that first Test against the All Blacks will be an even tougher task for Wales given they won't have their England-based players available, which will see them be without Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau and Louis Rees-Zammit, plus the likes of Nick Tompkins and Callum Sheedy.
For Pivac, the challenge will be to get this team back up to their 2021 Six Nations standards. By his own admission, several of the squad haven't played that much rugby this season and haven't yet found form, while they also have issues in the back-row with Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, James Botham, Josh Macleod and James Davies all injured, while Ellis Jenkins is unlikely to face New Zealand.
So, while Wales will be aiming for a clean sweep, this will be a true test of their depth.
No. 10 - Japan
Tests: Ireland, Nov. 6; Portugal, Nov. 13; Scotland, Nov. 20.
Japan have been one of the big losers of the pandemic in rugby's Test arena, with the Brave Blossoms having played just three internationals since they exited their home World Cup in the quarterfinals. They were a late scratching from last year's Autumn Nations Cup, before at last returning to the field against the British & Irish Lions and then Ireland in mid-2021
Given it was basically four months between those games and the weekend's Test with the Wallabies, the 32-23 defeat was a fine effort against an Australian team hardened by the Rugby Championship. Jamie Joseph's side were just four points adrift of the Wallabies with five to play, too, showing they are truly capable of mixing it with world rugby's top 10.
The Brave Blossoms are superbly coached, understand how they want to play the game and boast a growing list of players of genuine attacking quality. With a little improvement at set-piece, Japan could worry both of Ireland and Scotland -- whom they beat at RWC 2019 -- and the Brave Blossoms should be far too strong for Portugal. Building squad continuity this November will set Japan up nicely for the two-year run to France, where they will again fancy their chances of getting out of pool that features England and Argentina.