What's new for rugby's top sides ahead of the November Tests?

With less than a year to go until the Rugby World Cup in Japan, the autumn internationals represents the latest opportunity for both the northern and southern hemisphere sides to step up their tournament preparations.

While New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have been in Rugby Championship action over the past couple of months, it's been a while since Europe's top sides took to the field for the summer Tests back in June.

Plenty has happened on and off the pitch since then and with the first round of November fixtures kicking off on Saturday, here's how international rugby's top sides are shaping up -- in order of their current world ranking.

No.1 - New Zealand

New Zealand have been typically dominant since June, with a clean sweep of Australia in the Bledisloe Cup complimenting yet another Rugby Championship title. But the All Blacks were also handed a rare defeat by South Africa in September, offering a glimmer of encouragement to Ireland and England that they can be beaten this November.

Steve Hansen's side were also hit by the injury to Sam Cane, a fixture at No.7 for the All Blacks since Richie McCaw's retirement, who is set for an extended stint on the sidelines with a neck injury. But Cane's bad luck has opened the door for Ardie Savea, and if last week's win over the Wallabies is anything to go by, he is already making the most of it.

Savea is seemingly one of the toughest players to tackle in the game such is his leg drive and never-say-die attitude, and he rarely misses a tackle in defence. Steve Hansen may opt for Matt Todd at some point on tour, but prepare to see Savea make a huge impact against both England and Ireland. -- Sam Bruce

No.2 - Ireland

From a third Grand Slam to a historic series win in Australia, it's fair to say 2018 is going extremely well for Ireland.

Since then, the IRFU, helped massively by their central contract model, have been able to rest and manage their key players and as a result, scrum-half Conor Murray is the only notable absentee ahead of the November internationals.

Murray has not played since final Australia Test in June because of a neck injury but has signed a new contract keeping him with the IRFU until 2022. Keith Earls has also penned a new deal, which was further encouragement that Ireland can retain their most talented players under the current system.

Aside from that, the future of head coach Joe Schmidt beyond 2019 remains unclear. The New Zealander is set to make a decision on whether to remain with Ireland after the World Cup at the end of the month. -- Jamie Braidwood

No.3 - Wales

Warren Gatland has a rather nice problem that he's never had during his 11 years in charge of Wales -- his best XV is not blindingly obvious.

Impressive performances from fringe players on the summer tour of Argentina means there are a lot of areas in the side up for debate. Gareth Anscombe's fine form at club level will see him compete with Dan Biggar at No.10 while Owen Watkin will give the likes of Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies a run for their money at centre.

There's also plenty of selection dilemmas for Gatland in the back-row and a three-way scrap for a spot at scrum-half. A year out from the World Cup, sorting this out is a fascinating problem for Gatland to have. -- Sean Nevin

No.4 - England

Welcome back Chris Ashton. It's been a long, long time since the mercurial winger donned an England jersey, but he is finally back in contention.

The Sale man has not played for his country since 2014 with suspensions and his season in international exile with Toulon excluding him from the side, but he finally looks set to add to his 39 caps.

After picking up a seven-week suspension for a pre-season dump tackle, he finally made his Sale debut last weekend and boy was it worth the wait -- a hattrick against Connacht will boost his chances of making his international return against the Springboks on Saturday no end.

Given England's struggles so far during 2018, they need him more than ever. -- Sean Nevin

No.5 - South Africa

The Springboks have steadily improved under new boss Rassie Erasmus since their series victory over England in June, but a successful tour of the U.K. and France will go a long way in affirming the progress they have made after two disastrous years under Allister Coetzee.

Erasmus refreshed the squad with a lot of exciting rookies such as Aphiwe Dyantyi, who came through nicely during the victories over England in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. The Boks had mixed success in the Rugby Championship, which included poor performances away to Argentina and Australia.

However, there is a lot of optimism around South African rugby following the gutsy win over the All Blacks in Wellington and top performance in the narrow defeat against the world champions in Pretoria. -- John Goliath

No.6 - Scotland

Head coach Gregor Townsend was awarded with a new contract following Scotland's inconsistent summer tour of the Americas, but it was just reward for a hugely encouraging 12 months.

Scotland continue to go from strength to strength under Townsend and November provides another set of challenges for his team, with fixtures against Wales, Fiji, South Africa and Argentina to come.

The injuries to Stuart Hogg and captain John Barclay are a blow and places more responsibility on the shoulders of Finn Russell, who is thriving in his first season in France at Racing 92.

In his place at Glasgow, Adam Hastings, son of former Scotland captain Gavin, has emerged as a real talent and has impressed for the Warriors so far this season. -- Jamie Braidwood

No.7 - Australia

Head coach Michael Cheika came under fire during Australia's tumultuous Rugby Championship, but remains in charge despite the Wallabies' three heavy defeats to their Kiwi rivals.

As ever, Israel Folau is never far away from the headlines and the star back penned a new four-year deal last month. European rugby fans' most recent memory of Folau is probably rejoicing in his sin-binning against Ireland during the June Test series. That hotly-debated aerial contest would end up costing the Wallabies star a one-week spell, a decision that has since brought about change in the way that challenge is viewed.

But that's not the only adjustment Folau has been a part of, with Cheika switching his key strike weapon to the wing and, as recently as last week, outside centre. It's more likely that latest move was a one-off but such have been Dane Haylett-Petty's efforts in the No.15 jersey that Cheika would be foolish to restore Folau to fullback. -- Sam Bruce

No.8 - France

France headed home from their inevitable All Blacks hiding in June thinking that, at least, the rest of the year would be easier.

At the time, all was not well in the camps of two of their November opponents, South Africa and Argentina, while Les Bleus, despite the 3-0 New Zealand scoreline, hinted coyly at reasons for cautious optimism.

Then the Rugby Championship happened and the Springboks and the Pumas were suddenly worryingly good again. Then the attritional Top 14 kicked off, and wasted little time casting international hopefuls to the injury sidelines.

So, where are France now, heading into the end of year Tests? Working hard to manage rapidly-waning positive and rising negative expectations. Pretty much as you were, then... -- James Harrington

No.14 - Italy

When Conor O'Shea was appointed head coach a couple years ago, he looked set to inherit a blossoming new generation of Italian talent, basically because of the expanded Federal Academy System introduced a few seasons before.

Since then, Italy have collected a second and third consecutive Wooden Spoon at the Six Nations but their youth teams continue to impress. Their Under 20s have finished eighth in both years at the Junior World Championship, beating Ireland, Scotland and Argentina, and grabbed a historic fourth place in this year's Six Nations

Meanwhile Benetton and Zebre continue to improve and are showing unprecedented maturity in the Pro 14. Once again, the future is bright. Just sit back and relax. -- Enrico Borra