North v South: Rankings, Lions spots on offer
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Rarely can November's congested Test window have carried such importance, with not only rankings to be decided for the 2019 World Cup draw, but also players jockeying for spots on next year's British and Irish Lions tour.
The All Blacks are the runaway form side in world rugby having dominated the Rugby Championship, winning the Southern Hemisphere's elite tournament with two rounds to play.
Their final victory over Australia stretched their unbeaten streak to 18, a record for a tier one nation that looks likely to be continued even further.
In a move to increase branding, the All Blacks will play Ireland at Chicago's Soldier Field before returning to Europe to take on Italy, the Irish on home soil in Dublin and then France in Paris.
Despite losing key players such as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter after defending their World Cup crown last year, New Zealand have raised their game while blooding younger and fringe players.
"Younger players will get more experience within the All Blacks environment, and it'll allow the selectors and coaching group to keep working on blending the mixture of young talent with the more experienced players in our group," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said of the November Tests.
"This will allow our game to continue to improve and will help ensure the team is future-proofed."
Warren Gatland, who will lead the British and Irish Lions on their tour to his native New Zealand in June 2017, added of the Kiwis: "They have obviously been pretty impressive and play with a lot of confidence.
"Fair play to the All Blacks in breaking that world record and they have a good chance of extending that," Gatland said, adding that neither Australia nor South Africa were on top form.
There can be no denying that players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales will be eyeing the November run-outs as the perfect time to impress Gatland in a bid to nail down a spot in what is expected to be a 39-man touring squad.
But more immediate for all coaches will be the burning issue of rankings for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, the higher the seeding, in theory at least, leading to a 'better' pool draw in Kyoto in May and a more straightforward route to the knockout stages.
While European teams have the chance to better their ranking in the lead up to the draw, teams from the Southern Hemisphere do not.
A prime example is Argentina, whose one victory in the Rugby Championship has seen them drop to ninth in the standings, meaning victory is everything in their games against Japan, Wales, Scotland and England.
The Welsh were ranked ninth for the 2015 World Cup and ended up in a pool with hosts England and finalists Australia, who were in the top two tranches of seeds.
They currently sit fifth behind New Zealand, England, Australia and South Africa, and Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards insists a top-four berth was the team's goal.
"If we can push our way into the top four ... that would be mission accomplished with the World Cup draw on the horizon," Edwards said.
Wales open against Australia, who are bidding for a first Grand Slam since 1984, on Saturday before going on to play Argentina, Japan and South Africa. England also host the Springboks, Pumas and Wallabies, with Fiji completing their programme.
Aside from two run-outs against the All Blacks, Joe Schmidt's Ireland entertain Canada and Australia, while Scotland play the Wallabies, Argentina and Georgia.
The French have lined up a potential banana skin against Samoa and also face Australia as well as the might of the All Blacks.
After their disastrous World Cup campaign, England have looked a different side under Australian Eddie Jones, who led Japan to that thrilling victory over South Africa in the same tournament.
The English notched up a 3-0 whitewash over Australia in June and have drafted in Jason Ryles from NRL club Melbourne Storm to stiffen defensive structures.
"We want to bring that harder edge to our defence," said Jones, with South Africa first up at Twickenham.
"To beat the Springboks we need our defence to be absolutely brutal. We want it to be one of the trademarks of the team in every game, not just sometimes."