Are the All Blacks unbeatable?
Are the All Blacks unbeatable?SHARE
A familiar question hangs in the air ahead of the start of this year's November internationals – who can defeat New Zealand?
The world champions have been in especially scintillating form of late, winning all six of their matches in the Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship.
Even South Africa had to give second best to their arch-rivals with the Springboks suffering a 38-27 loss to their arch-rivals at their Ellis Park stronghold in Johannesburg.
And the worry for the rest, two years out from the 2015 World Cup in England, is that New Zealand coach Steve Hansen expects further improvement during a four-match tour featuring Tests against Japan, France, England and Ireland.
"We will be looking to use the tour to take ourselves beyond where we are at the moment," Hansen said.
If this has been a year to remember for New Zealand, so far it's been to one forget for Australia.
Heading into Saturday's Twickenham Test against England, the Wallabies have won just three of 10 internationals in 2013 New Zealand's Robbie Deans was sacked as Wallaby boss after the 2-1 series defeat by the British and Irish and his replacement, Ewen McKenzie, has since won just two of his seven games in charge.
But a year ago, having been thrashed 33-6 by France in Paris, Australia promptly beat 2015 pool rivals England 20-14 at Twickenham.
"As much as everyone talks about us, they [England] are under pressure themselves," McKenzie said.
England will try to recapture the form that saw them stun New Zealand 38-21 this time last year with the kind of running rugby they are likely to require if they are to win the next World Cup.
But injuries mean they will be without centres Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt, who both starred against the All Blacks last year, and midfield, long a problem area for England, is again posing difficulties for coach Stuart Lancaster.
"We believe we have a great attacking team," Lancaster said. "We want to hit the ground running."
For Six Nations champions Wales this November offers a chance to improve upon a dreadful record against the Tri-Nations of one win and 20 defeats since New Zealand's Warren Gatland, the victorious Lions chief, became their coach in 2008.
"Hopefully, there is enough experience now so that we can make an impact against the Southern Hemisphere sides over the next couple of years, Gatland said.
As former Wales international Eddie Butler pointed out, Scotland, especially if it rains at Murrayfield, "usually beat somebody big, usually by something like 9-6", so South Africa and Australia will be on their guard in Edinburgh.
Meanwhile Ireland, in Brian O'Driscoll's final season before retirement, would love nothing more than to notch up a first win over the All Blacks.
On their day, France can play a brand of rugby even the All Blacks can struggle to contain.
The challenge, as it so often has been for France, three-times losing World Cup finalists, is to make sure those good days happen more often.