With only hours to go before the All Blacks face Ireland at Dublin's Lansdowne Road, six leading rugby journalists share their thoughts with Newstalk ZB's Martin Devlin
How are the All Blacks travelling this year compared to the same time last year. Are we better? Or worse?
Chris Jones (British rugby writer):
I think they're worse, only in the fact that what I saw on Saturday was an awful lot of misalignment and generally muddled thinking when under pressure and I was really surprised about that when you're looking for the guys to realign and get into that situation where there's somebody taking control, and that's what an opposing team is going to look at and say 'there is some vulnerability there when you put them under really big pressure and when the weather is not great.'
Patrick McKendry (NZ Herald): I think probably slightly better, I just feel that the rest of the world is catching up and in particular, South Africa, England we saw them catch up a bit too last week, I just think that there have been improvements and maybe the All Blacks aren't making those same improvements.
Gregor Paul (NZ Herald): I think if you look at the key indicators of what they need to be doing, rather than making a hard and fast comparison, they've got a lot of the same qualities that they had in 2014. They've got the resilience and the character to dig out those big dreams that are not easy to dig out – we saw that in Pretoria, and we saw that in London.
They've got a strong leader, Kieran Read, he's developing, he's building, he's not quite at the same level that (Richie) McCaw was as a captain but that's really important that he's getting close towards it so there's a similarity between the two and I think they have the same triple threat game where they're building that ability to pass, run, kick, (and) the kicking game is coming. It's maybe a wee bit behind where they were in 2014 with (Daniel) Carter, so probably on par but maybe with a few areas around that kicking game to catch up on.
Daniel McHardy (Radio Sport): The All Blacks have been so consistent now for a number of years, so better? I think there's an argument you could say yes. You just look at the results, they've only lost one this year, scored more tries than last year - granted the opposition was far stronger in that middle portion of 2017 with the British and Irish Lions.
What I have enjoyed about the All Blacks is I think they've built depth in that front row especially. Some of the prop stories really have been the story of the year as far as player development. You've seen Lima Sopoaga move on and you've replaced him with Richie Mo'unga, not may sides can mention that they've been able to replace their second choice first five with one that's equally as good, if not potentially better.
Liam Napier (NZ Herald):
I think they are better because you've got a number of players who have got greater experience and you also have vastly more depth, but in saying that they have shown vulnerabilities when we talk about in the wet at Twickenham – I think they've got a lot of work to do on that front – and there's still some issues in regards to countering rush defence but they are finding methods to counter that when you look at Damian McKenzie at fullback. So, better off on the whole but there are still openings there for teams to catch them unaware and exploit the weaknesses which still exist.
Nigel Yalden (Radio Sport): In certain areas, yes, I think the leadership is one that has improved and I think we got a really good example of that last week. I think at the set piece and lineout they're the best in the world, I think they have improved there and the depth in that area has improved both at lock but definitely in the propping side of things.
I guess the main area of concern is they are conceding more tries than they have, I think the offense has regressed slightly, I think overall they are slightly better, the positives slightly outweigh the negatives.
Is this match-up tomorrow morning, one versus two in the world, for the unofficial test championship, the best team in the world right now?
Absolutely, the winner of this match will have bragging rights. Fact is, according to the world ranking, you guys are number one by some way. Ireland, half the world they dominate, and do they dominate the rest of the world? Well, we're not going to know for 12 months and by then, you guys will have completely sorted out your backline and you will be even more potent.
McKendry: Yes it is, I believe so, but the Irish are just so hard to beat, I guess that's first and foremost their greatest strength. They don't make many mistakes, they don't necessarily create a heck of a lot but they are just very, very difficult to get past and I think they're pretty good at capitalising on the opportunities in terms of points scoring.
Paul: I think so. Ireland have shown they're consistent since that victory in Chicago over the All Blacks, they've moved on from there, they've not regressed, in fact, they've probably built a lot of depth. The record will tell you that they've won a grand slam in a Six Nations so I think it's a fair reflection that they are number two.
But if there's a hidden meaning to that question it might be is this game going to be harder than it was last week at Twickenham? Arguably not. I actually think playing England at Twickenham in the pouring rain with 80,000 Englishman willing you to fail is probably a harder assignment than coming to Dublin to play what is a good Irish team. I think the All Blacks, through the environment, through the conditions, the way Ireland play, I'm not going to say it's an easy challenge but I think they will find it an easier game to navigate their way through than playing England in Twickenham.
I think it is. Look at the sustained success Joe Schmidt has had over his time looking after this Irish side. Ever since he's taken over, unprecedented success, winning in Australia for the first time since the late 70s in a test series, one in South Africa, they've beaten the All Blacks, they've won grand slams, multiple Six Nations championships - so they've done everything they possibly can for me to believe they're the second best side in the world.
Napier: 100 per cent, Ireland are the Six Nations champions, they have consistently been right up there, knocked over the All Blacks a couple of years ago.
I do think that this does decide the mantle of the worlds best team, certainly in 2018 at least, that's the theme that the All Blacks have set themselves this week so I expect them to come out and maintain that mantle regardless of the fact that they've been the number one team for nine straight years.
Yalden: Yes, absolutely. I think New Zealand, even though they have not been playing to the standard that they might want, I think they have improved on this particular tour and Ireland, you've got to look at their record , one loss in recent times they've been hissing along quite nicely so when I look at it I think quite clearly yes, these are the two best teams in the world at the moment.)