The most important rugby internationals of the next three years take place over the forthcoming four weeks when the main Test nations play almost 40 matches that are to determine the seedings for the 2015 World Cup.
Such is the importance of the World Cup in the rugby calendar that these fixtures (the sport refuses to embrace the concept of “friendlies”) just about comprise a qualifying competition for the England-based tournament.
The big-three southern hemisphere nations are all touring, with world champions New Zealand, fresh from winning the inaugural four-nations Rugby Championship, but denied a world-record run of victories by last month’s draw with Australia, secure on top of the rankings.
Second-placed Australia also look safe for an all-important top-four place, but South Africa (third), England (fourth), France (fifth) and Wales (sixth) could all spend the next four weeks climbing and falling before the final positions are settled for the Dec. 3 World Cup draw in London.
Anyone outside the top four will face one of the big guns in the pool stage in three years’ time, making their potential path to the final likely to become significantly tougher.
Further down the rankings Ireland, Argentina, Scotland, Samoa, Italy and Tonga, the only other automatic qualifiers, are desperately battling to fill the next four slots to secure a second seeding and greatly enhance their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals.
Coaches, of course, will rarely be drawn on such long-term issues.
“We just have to look after our performances, that will look after our results and the results will look after the rankings,” England’s Stuart Lancaster said as he prepared for a grueling program against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
In truth, there is little point in anyone trying to work out what they might need to do to or to avoid to secure a certain ranking, such are the complications of the system where teams gain or lose points against their opposition, but have those points weighted by the teams’ relative strengths, the margin of victory and location.
If the form lines of recent years are to be followed, it is unlikely that the Six Nations sides will make much of an impression on the traveling big guns, even though the tourists arrive at the end of their seasons.
Since the 2007 World Cup the Six Nations teams have lost 31 of the 38 home games they have played against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa — a shocking record surpassed in mediocrity only by their even worse performances south of the equator.
England, the only northern team ever to have enjoyed a period of superiority when they won 12 in a row en route to lifting the 2003 World Cup, need to take a couple of southern scalps to give Lancaster confidence in his rebuilding job since taking over from Martin Johnson after last year’s World Cup.
There were some promising signs from a new-look team in two defeats and a draw in June’s three-match series in South Africa, but Twickenham fans, who remember Clive Woodward’s all-conquering teams hammering the Springboks 53-3 10 years ago as part of a seven-match winning streak against them, are desperate for the sport’s biggest and richest union to again start punching its weight.
Six Nations champions Wales were brought back to Earth when they lost all three Tests in Australia in June. However, they were tight games, with some heartbreaking late turnarounds, and the Welsh can approach their series against Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia with real belief.
Scotland enjoyed the most successful summer tour, beating Samoa, Fiji and Australia, but that run looks set to come to a halt when they face New Zealand first up on Sunday, seeking their first win in 28 games.
If England, Wales and Scotland took some joy from their tours, it was a dire time for Ireland, who lost three out of three against New Zealand, culminating in an humiliating 60-0 thrashing in Hamilton.
Down to seventh in the rankings and in danger of missing out on second seeding only a year after they shocked Australia to top their World Cup pool, Ireland need to find form and discover it quickly.
Their prospects have been hampered by the absence of Brian O’Driscoll from their games against South Africa and Argentina, though the 33-year-old captain is unlikely to be able to drag his battered body though to another World Cup.
Ireland’s performances, in stark and perplexing contrast to the sparkling displays of Heineken Cup champions Leinster, have piled the pressure on coach Declan Kidney, who is out of contract next year.
Kidney will draw comfort from Ireland’s impressive recent record against the Springboks, winning their last three home games against them, but he knows he has a lot of work to do.
France are also in a rebuilding phase, as many of the players at the heart of last year’s World Cup final-reaching side have retired or been ruled out through injury.
They kick off on Saturday looking to end a five-match losing streak against Australia, before taking on Argentina and Samoa.
Italy’s key battle is their opener with Tonga, then it becomes damage limitation against New Zealand and Australia.
Beyond the bigger nations there is a profusion of other games as the International Rugby Board appears to be making good on its promise to provide more meaningful competition for the tier two and three nations — essential to keep the World Cup from becoming even more predictable than it is now.
Samoa, Tonga, Canada, the US and Russia, who made their World Cup debut last year, will all feature in a mini-tournament in north Wales while Romania, Japan, Uruguay, Portugal, Georgia and even Chile are also in action in what should be a month to remember.