COMMENT

It's already the rugby topic of 2019: the mounting northern challenge along with mounting fears over the All Blacks' World Cup defence.

And yet in the cold light of day, New Zealand are still firm favourites for this year's tournament in Japan.

They have a magnificent tight five, a great set piece, the brilliant backs. In Jack Goodhue, they have unearthed the perfect backline fulcrum.

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Beyond that, however, it looks like a very different picture.

There are significant holes in the All Blacks' succession plan, and players who are struggling to step up to test level.

New Zealand has found it impossible to replace Richie McCaw, Kieran Read at his best, and Jerome Kaino.

Over the next five years, I predict they will find it equally difficult to find a combo even close to matching Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.

The conveyor belt is not empty — Rieko Ioane, Scott Barrett, Codie Taylor, Goodhue and maybe Richie Mo'unga are fantastic long term test prospects.

But fewer All Blacks look like sure bets.

The continued selection of Nathan Harris is a concession that New Zealand is in danger of losing its x-factor at hooker. The search for a third halfback, and thus the future first halfback, is like an X Factor audition where judges screw up their face.

There are more doubts than certainties over extreme talents like Asafo Aumua, Vaea Fifita and Ngani Laumape. Damian McKenzie still lacks a test-class temperament.

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Boosted by the increasing influence of southern hemisphere club coaches — beyond the improvements masterminded by Eddie Jones, Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland in national teams — there is a growing confidence around a more sophisticated game in Europe.

New Zealand will always produce or find amazing athletes — Shannon Frizell is an outstanding current example.

But the trench warfare excellence inspired by one amazing man, Richie McCaw, is fading.

All Blacks players react during their defeat to Ireland last year. Photo / Getty
All Blacks players react during their defeat to Ireland last year. Photo / Getty

Never underestimate the widespread effect McCaw had on this country's rugby fortunes and standards. That remarkable influence cannot last indefinitely. A professional sport will not bend to one man's rule forever.

England are, as their 2003 World Cup winner Will Greenwood highlighted this week, building a strident defensive MO to base the future around.

England — incredibly — have a pack with greater athletic power than the All Blacks if the Vunipola brothers are fit.

The trends are not in New Zealand's favour. Too many are going the wrong way. Ignoring them invites a fool's paradise.

While a loss in Dublin to a fantastic Irish side last year dominated the headlines, England copped a cruel match-turning decision while outplaying the All Blacks and they weren't even in finest fettle.

It was probably the more significant game in terms of the future.

England has every chance of becoming the dominant force in world rugby. They have the numbers, the money, and they now have the coaching.

Europe and Japan are picking at New Zealand's resources, taking significant meat and exposing some frail bones.

Far from being totally dominant, few All Blacks would make the world's top XV.

New Zealand's best have been overtaken by Faf de Klerk, Owen Farrell, Malcolm Marx, Tadhg Furlong and co. There has surely never been a time before when no All Black loosie would be considered among the very best.

We are still in a golden All Black era, just. It has been an amazing ride. But the rot is setting in.

A far more even rugby landscape is nothing to be feared, although it will take some getting used to for many New Zealanders.

But nothing lasts forever — once-mighty Australia's cricket demise is an example of that.

The all-conquering All Black dynasty is almost over. It may be gone forever.