The All Blacks play their final four tests of the year in the United States and Europe next month. Gregor Paul, Patrick McKendry and Nigel Yalden answer the end-of-year tour's 10 most pressing questions.
1. Are the All Blacks in danger of having their winning run stopped on tour? Who presents the biggest danger?
Absolutely they are in danger. Ireland in Dublin would probably be the most likely place for an upset: there will be a passionate home crowd and plenty of intelligence about their opponent, given they will have played the All Blacks two weeks before in Chicago. Ireland play low-risk rugby and can handle themselves physically. It would be silly to think that France, in Paris, couldn't get up emotionally against an All Blacks side playing their 14th and final test.
Patrick McKendry: Of course they are; this is test rugby and the margins between the top sides aren't as wide as most think. Ireland showed in Dublin three years ago they have the potential to put the All Blacks under immense pressure. They should have won that day but the weight of history was probably too heavy, as they played themselves almost to a standstill in front of a crowd going bananas. They will again be a threat - probably more so in Dublin than Chicago. France have the ability to tip over any nation in Paris.
Nigel Yalden: Ireland and France are capable of competing with the All Blacks, so there is a chance, minimal as it appears, of the streak being ended. Ireland presents the biggest threat because they get two cracks at the All Blacks. They have the better recent form of the three teams faced on the end-of-year tour and an excellent coach in Joe Schmidt.
2. The All Blacks talk constantly about improvement. What areas will Steve Hansen most like to see improve on tour?
Nothing specifically but everything generally. That is, he'll want better, more accurate cleanout at the tackled ball to release quicker possession, better plays off scrum possession, improved discipline and tighter, more explosive defence that smothers teams and forces them to panic.
PM: All areas, probably in particular defence and decision making (including when to offload and when to play a bit safer). The Wallabies put the All Blacks under a lot of pressure at Eden Park last weekend and the home side missed 24 tackles (to Australia's 20). That's unusual for this lot under defence coach Wayne Smith and it was systematic of the amount of possession the Wallabies had. Every one of the All Blacks' ability to offload in the tackle make them a tough outfit to contain but if it goes wrong, the tactic can put them under pressure.
NY: Building and empowering the leadership group to his philosophy was a key component of Hansen's first year in charge of the All Blacks after the 2011 Rugby World Cup win and this end-of-year tour gives him more opportunity to continue to develop substance and depth in this group of leaders on and off the field ... and obviously goalkicking.
3. We're only 12 months on from the last World Cup. Is it too soon for the coaches to start getting serious about their plans for the 2019 World Cup in Japan?
There's no need to get serious about it just yet but with so many youngsters in the squad - players such as Rieko Ioane, Damian McKenzie, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ardie Savea and Anton Leinert-Brown - they are building the next generation of All Blacks. This side will develop organically, in much the same way it did during the last World Cup cycle. The younger players will pick up the odd appearance and slowly be given greater opportunity to put pressure on the established group.
PM: No, it's about continually looking ahead while staying in the moment, if that makes sense, and Hansen is the best in the business at it. Evidence of that can be seen in Kieran Read's captaincy, or Sam Cane's performances in the No 7 jersey before he was injured. No matter the importance of the player, in this case Richie McCaw, succession plans must be laid. Apprentice Jordie Barrett could be a special talent - what odds of him playing No 12 at the Japan World Cup? And alongside him in the No 13 jersey could be Rieko Ioane. Both are tourists.
NY: Yes, but in part that's because of the overhyped importance placed on the 12-yearly cash cow that is the British and Irish Lions tour.
4. Which All Black do you expect to stand out on this tour?
Liam Squire has been hugely impressive in his cameo appearances and looks the sort of rugged, abrasive athlete who could become a serious force as he finds his confidence at this level. He should be given plenty of game time on this tour - probably a start at No 8 against Italy - and the chance to establish himself as the heir apparent to Jerome Kaino.
PM: Patrick Tuipulotu. With Sam Whitelock not travelling due to his high ankle sprain, and Brodie Retallick a doubt due to his concussion, Tuipulotu could be about to hit the jackpot. The big Blues lock impressed during his 80 minutes against Argentina in Buenos Aires and now has an opportunity to get some significant game time. His ball skills under pressure and ability to carry the ball powerfully with his 125kg frame make him ideally suited to the All Blacks' game plan.
NY: Patrick Tuipulotu - with Whitelock and Retallick looking doubtful for next week in Chicago (Whitelock might not be back until the Dublin test), it presents Tuipulotu with a massive opportunity and based on his outstanding outing in Buenos Aires, he appears primed to take full advantage.
5. Similarly, which player will be under most pressure to deliver?
This year hasn't gone so well for Malakai Fekitoa. He began the year hopeful - confident maybe - that he would be the preferred centre and have the chance to establish himself in the role. Injury and patchy form have counted against him and, while he's struggled, Leinert-Brown has thrived and George Moala advanced. Fekitoa will be eager to finish the season with commanding performances.
PM: There will be scrutiny on Aaron Smith once he returns to the All Blacks' match-day squad. His last game for the All Blacks was against the Springboks in Christchurch on September 17. He hasn't played since. He wasn't selected for the Pumas test in Buenos Aires, and then suffered his well-publicised fall from grace before the Boks test in Durban. He "voluntarily" withdrew from the recent Wallabies test at Eden Park. His game wouldn't have deteriorated during that time but TJ Perenara has performed well in his absence and the eyes of the world will be on the Highlanders No 9 when he returns.
NY: Elliot Dixon - with Steven Luatua joining the All Blacks squad, Akira Ioane in the vicinity on Maori All Blacks duty and the likes of Brad Shields and Jordan Taufua sitting at home awaiting their chances, Dixon will need to deliver strong performances (most likely off the bench in Chicago and starting in Rome) to remind everyone, and possibly himself to a degree, that he is the international calibre player many (myself included) believe him to be.
6. Opinion is divided on whether it's a shame the All Blacks aren't playing England on this tour. Where do you sit?
The All Blacks have played England 12 times in the past 10 years and the sense of occasion and mystery is diminishing. Let the hype and anticipation build, create the idea of two heavyweights waiting to collide, as often the anticipation has more value than the reality. Besides, England might not be as good as many think they are.
PM: I think it's good. Let's savour the build-up to this one because, as the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. The All Blacks have played the English five times since that infamous defeat at Twickenham in 2012. At one point, it seemed the two teams were playing each other every November. Sometimes less is more. With Hansen and Eddie Jones potentially going at it, this is a test to look forward to.
NY: I hope the All Blacks don't play England before the 2019 Rugby World Cup. I want the on-field contest between those teams to be the focus, not the inevitable media-driven three-ring circus that any match before that tournament ultimately ends up being.
7. Without Michael Cheika to put his foot in his mouth, who's going to provide the most entertainment?
Hansen does a pretty good line in entertainment. He'll deliver a few memorable one-liners, as could France coach Guy Noves, who is a touch volatile and old school with it.
PM: Take your pick: Hansen's pithy one-liners or Julian Savea's blockbusting hat-trick against Italy. I can almost guarantee the former, not quite the latter.
NY: If you think Jones ain't going to have a thing or two to say about the All Blacks, despite the fact England don't even play New Zealand on this tour, you're dreaming. And if you think Hansen won't chip back, then you are fully comatose.
8. The number of Kiwis in international teams seems to be increasing and Ireland will have a handful this time around. Is this a good thing?
Not really, which is why rugby's eligibility rules - particularly the length of time players must be resident in a country not of their birth - is under review. It has never seemed right that players can grow up dreaming of being All Blacks, get close and then throw it all in for a different international jersey. What makes it worse in Ireland is that the Irish Rugby Union are funding these moves and actively recruiting foreign players to play in their test team.
PM: It's only fair. Coaches can travel the world coaching any team they like with impunity. Remember, players can't turn out for another country once they have appeared for one.
NY: It's not about good or bad, right or wrong, it's simply a reflection of the professional game that players are making those choices because it is a viable option in this era.
9. TJ Perenara or Aaron Smith?
Smith, still by a long way.
PM: Smith is the best halfback in the world by some distance. It's almost time for him to make headlines for the right reasons again.
NY: Smith - as much as Perenara has closed the gap between himself and Smith, the latter is still quicker to the breakdown, quicker to clear the ball, has a more consistent kicking game from the base of ruck and mauls, and his pass, which is quicker, longer and more accurate, is something that can significantly change the point of attack or take three defenders out of the equation in one motion.
10. We have had bugs and clowns. What's next?
There will be some old chestnuts that come up, no doubt: the haka, foul play, both thuggery and cheating. There will be suggestions the All Blacks get favourable treatment from referees and, goodness knows, given the way this year has gone, there could be some crazy, outlandish theories about the All Blacks using Jedi mind tricks.
PM: Beer-gate, where opposition teams and coaches insist on having a beer with the All Blacks before tests, rather than after them.