It's bordering on the dramatic to suggest the All Blacks are about to embark on a tour that would rank as the toughest they have faced in the professional age.

But if it is hyperbole, then the question would be, which tour has been tougher?

And that's where it gets hard to come up with an answer as while there have been many difficult northern voyages for the All Blacks since 1996, none have seen the stars align quite like this.

England and Ireland have rarely, if ever, both been such fierce competitors at the same time and the Wallabies, who the All Blacks will meet first in Yokohama, are not the hapless and broken force that their recent run of results suggests.


With tests against Japan and Italy also on the agenda, the All Blacks have a schedule that will take them to their limits and as much as it is feasible to see them winning all five, so too is it imaginable that they could win only two.

Has there been another tour in the last 20 years when it has been genuinely possible to see the All Blacks losing three tests?

Has there been another tour where it would seem like a job well done if the All Blacks come home with just one defeat?

Probably not and this isn't an attempt to suggest that the All Blacks are fragile or vulnerable, but an acknowledgement that the quality of the opposition they will face makes this an intrepid journey like no other.

Adding to the difficulty is that the next five weeks are massive in the context of this World Cup cycle.

To be able to successfully navigate five tests in five weeks would give the All Blacks some reassurance they have the psychological strength and physical resilience they will need in Japan next year.

All of which means that the All Blacks need their senior players to be a driving and inspirational force both on and off the field in the next five weeks.

More specifically, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Smith need to be at their best – need to be leading others with the quality and consistency of their performances.

If they are honest, all four will agree that for different reasons, they need to lift their contribution.

Whitelock, frankly, has looked tired in recent tests. He's ground through games, getting through the work but without the dynamic edge or explosive blasts that he produces when he's at his best.

He's been one-paced which is probably a reflection of the enormous workload he has had this year, but while it's understandable that he's looking a little jaded, it still needs to be fixed.

Read has been solid and efficient since he returned to action in late June, which is admirable given the seriousness of the back injury he incurred at the end of last year.

But a little like Whitelock, the pressure is on him to rediscover that creative component that marks him as the best No 8 in the world.

Can he find an extra yard of pace to enable him to roam wider and use his brilliant array of passing options to break defences?

Big games tend to be decided by individual moments of brilliance and Read has provided plenty of those in his career, but none to date in 2018.

He was a strong voice and calming influence in Pretoria, but in the next five weeks, his captaincy needs to be defined by his inspirational play.

Williams doesn't need to be all trickery and magical offloads to inspire those around him.

He can make his presence felt by solid execution of the basics and the All Blacks need him to remind everyone that he is a brutal and punishing defender and a crushing force when he runs straight and hard at the line.

The All Blacks have missed those components more than his off-loading, although they would clearly like to see him slip at least one or two unthinkable passes per test.

Injury has pretty much robbed Williams the chance to build his form and confidence this season, but three strong tests before the end of the year are what everyone needs to see from him to be reassured he's still the best No 12 in the country.

Smith is a different case entirely. He is in the midst of another outstanding season and was quite brilliant in the Bledisloe Cup tests and then against the Pumas in Nelson.

But the last two tests, for whatever reason, have not flowed in his direction and he was not particularly influential.

If he's anonymous in a third successive test it would force a few questions to be asked.

But the pressure isn't on Smith to prove at 32 that he's still got what it takes to play test rugby as outside back.

The pressure is on him to make the All Blacks a better attacking side. When he's hungry, focused and confident Smith is the attacking spark that ignites the All Blacks and enables them to play the unstructured rugby that makes them almost untouchable.