And so it begins. The Kiwis are about to embark on their biggest challenge since the 2013 World Cup, and success is far from guaranteed in the Four Nations.

Though New Zealand still hold the No 1 ranking, it's a crown that has slipped a bit in the past 12 months, with four losses in their last five tests against England and Australia.

There were mitigating factors for most of those defeats, as they took a depleted side to England last year and were also without a number of key men in Newcastle in May. But there is no doubt the Kiwis have not regained the mix of verve and brutality they displayed in their Four Nations triumph of 2014, as well as the historic Anzac test win a year later in Brisbane.

Meanwhile, the Kangaroos have bounced back, re-engineered under Mal Meninga into a much more combative side, while England got an invaluable boost with their 2-1 series win over New Zealand last year. It sets up an intriguing series, which kicks off with Australia versus Scotland tomorrow morning (NZT) and climaxes at Anfield four weeks later.

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The draw has not been kind to the Kiwis, who have the toughest road to the final. They face England first up on Sunday in a match which will define their tournament, then take on Australia seven days later.

The Kangaroos, in contrast, can ease into the campaign - and try new combinations - against the Scots, while the English get a fortnight between matches with their major rivals.

And the Kiwis have yet to prove they can cope without Kieran Foran and Simon Mannering, as they have won only one significant test without the pair since 2014. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the underrated Dean Whare are also significant losses but injuries are part of the sport and the Kiwis just have to cope.

New Zealand still has the best pack, on paper anyway, and will be hard to stop if they get going. However, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves remains unproven at this level, after an underwhelming display against Australia in Perth, while Issac Luke needs to recapture his Rabbitohs form, rather than the mixed fare of this season.

If the forwards can achieve dominance, or even parity, then Shaun Johnson is the wildcard. Whether he likes it or not, Johnson is fundamental to New Zealand success. He was brilliant in the 2014 Four Nations tournament, with a series of displays that gained him the Golden Boot, and needs to recapture that level.

The 26-year-old can't afford to drift out of matches, though David Kidwell and his coaching team must also find ways to protect him from a large defensive workload like the one he recently endured in Perth.

Johnson has often been the difference in major matches - think of his last-minute try in the 2013 World Cup semifinal, or the burst of pace past Greg Inglis in Wellington in 2014 - and needs to be on song again.

"We'll be trying to lay a good platform for guys like Shaun to do their thing," said Kiwis forward Jason Taumalolo. "If we can do that, I'm sure Shaun will enjoy all the time and space to run around. He is a good ball runner as much as a playmaker, so we need to give him the space he needs."

The Kiwis will also need to overcome an abject recent record in the Northern Hemisphere, where they have beaten England only twice in the past decade. Tours in 2007, 2009 and 2011 were all disappointing campaigns, and their last notable success in the UK came with the Tri Nations victory in 2005.

England also have the twin factors of new coach Wayne Bennett and restored leader Sam Burgess, after his rugby experiment.

"We all know how good Sam is and what he brings to the team," said Kiwis coach Kidwell. "He is a major weapon for them and it's something we have to deal with."

The Kiwis' clash with England kicks off at 2.30am Sunday (NZT).