Within a couple of weeks, the genteel trot of the Rabo-Direct PRO12 will have changed to the lusty canter of the Heineken Cup. And after that, it really begins to get serious.
Time was when autumn internationals were a welcome distraction from the grind of the domestic season and a chance for some gin-soaked old duffers to say hello to their mates from the colonies. After that, they became a useful tool for swelling the coffers of the home Unions, struggling with the new financial reality of rugby as a professional game. Now, though, their significance is even greater.
For if rugby's international calendar looks like a marathon at times, the November Test period now marks the point when the race becomes a sprint. At stake are world rankings places that will determine the seeding bands for the 2015 World Cup. Get into the top four and you're laughing. Five to eight and you're still comfortable. Anything lower than eighth and you can start to panic.
Scotland are currently ninth. That represents considerable progress – courtesy of three wins on their recent Australasia tour – on the 12th slot, their lowest ever, occupied after this year's Six Nations whitewash, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in fiercely the higher up that ladder you go.
The next step, the one that will have the most critical bearing on their prospects in 2015, is the hardest of all. The rankings are calculated using a formula of mind-addling complexity. And if you can get your head round the principles behind the sums, you have to do them over and over again to allow for all sorts of results, in all sorts of places, by all sorts of margins. It is a job for the very smart or the very sad.
It is probably best not to speculate which category Scotland coach Andy Robinson falls into (he was a maths teacher in a previous life so we can probably take the charitable view) but the scenario will unquestionably occupy his attention over the weeks ahead.
To achieve a top-eight slot, Scotland will almost certainly have to enjoy a solid November series, probably two wins, or possibly a win and a draw, from their games against New Zealand, South Africa and Tonga. At the same time, they will be praying that Ireland and Argentina, seventh and eighth respectively, endure autumns of unremitting misery.
Robinson is likely to name his squad early in the week beginning October 21, with a squad-gathering in St Andrews the week after. So how do the runners and riders shape up? When Robinson's side returned from Australasia three months ago with a trio of wins under their belts, and a host of new players having proven their Test worth, it was a task he would have relished. But things have changed since – and not many for the better.
Let's start with the serious stuff. Since the squad came back, Chris Cusiter, Joe Ansbro and Rob Harley have all been ruled out of autumn matches by long-term injuries. All are front-rank players, although none would be considered a certain start for any or all of the games. Meanwhile, Glasgow props Jon Welsh and Ed Kalman, both of whom gained first caps during the Six Nations, have injuries that mean they will play no part in the forthcoming Tests.
Such things can be expected, and Robinson has been around the Test scene long enough to know it. He also has enough miles on his clock to appreciate that one player's injury is another's golden opportunity. If the conveyor belt of talent is running smoothly the understudies should be ready to step into the gaps. Unfortunately for Scotland, though, its gears have been grinding just lately. Yes, this has been a time of plenty in some positions, but a dearth in other areas.
Take Cusiter's scrum-half berth, for instance. A signature position for Scotland, the country has rarely been short of nippy little blokes who can do the business around the base of the scrum, but with the exception of Greig Laidlaw, now converted to a fly-half, none has really emerged in the past six years. Cusiter, Mike Blair and Rory Lawson have been scrapping over the jersey, and no one has broken into their circle. All very well, but the three are all now north of 30 (surprisingly, Lawson, often seen as the junior member of the group, is the oldest). To complicate matters further, Blair and Lawson both play second-division rugby: Blair in France with Brive, Lawson with England's Newcastle. To complicate the complication, Blair's outings have been limited by a shoulder injury.
Indeed, when not brushing up their language skills, most of Scotland's French contingent have been deepening their knowledge of medical facilities across the channel. Max Evans and Euan Murray have also been struggling recently, as has Johnnie Beattie, whose plan to reignite his career at Montpellier lasted only until he picked up a thigh injury in a pre-season friendly. Alasdair Strokosch, rapidly becoming a cult figure at Perpignan, is the only unqualified success.
Murray can already be ruled out of the first game, against New Zealand, on the basis that it takes place on a Sunday. But things took a turn for the worse when Moray Low picked up what looked like a serious knee injury in Glasgow's win over Zebre on Friday. If Low is ruled out of the November matches then Robinson would have to go pretty far down the pecking order to find another specialist tighthead – or, possibly, consider moving Ryan Grant to the other side of the scrum.
But Robinson has another concern as the autumn programme looms: just how battle-hardened will some of his core players be by the time of that match at Murrayfield on November 11? A number of them – Kelly Brown, Stuart Hogg, Dave Denton and Rory Lamont – could still be said to be in a rehabilitation phase, either just back from injury lay-offs or just about to return. All will be capable of playing by the second weekend in November. But it is still the All Blacks.
Yet there is good news too. While we fret about players being under-prepared, the deepening of the squads at Edinburgh and Glasgow means few of them are likely to be overcooked. And a few lesser lights are starting to show serious form too. Stewart McInally and Grant Gilchrist have been adding some serious grunt to the Edinburgh pack in recent weeks. Tom Ryder and Chris Fusaro have been done the same at Glasgow. Peter Murchie and Henry Pyrgos have looked sharp behind the Warriors' scrum.
So who will be in that team that lines up against the All Blacks?
Barring further injuries, assuming rehab plans continue, and discounting the possibility Robinson will send out a weakened team to protect top players for the Springboks match six days later, you can expect to see something like this: Stuart Hogg; Sean Lamont, Nick De Luca, Matt Scott, Tim Visser; Greig Laidlaw, Rory Lawson. Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Geoff Cross, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Kelly Brown, Ross Rennie, Dave Denton.
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