UK writer Kieran Jackson of the Mailonline gives his Northern Hemisphere perspective on New Zealand's chances at this year's World Cup.
Ahead of the Rugby World Cup in England four years ago, New Zealand were at the supreme peak of their powers.
Led by international stalwarts Richie McCaw as captain, and Dan Carter as fly-half, the All Blacks went into the 2015 tournament with a pool of players unmatched by anyone else in the tournament – current linchpin Beauden Barrett, for example, only made the bench.
Yet this time round, despite being favourites with the bookies again, there are question marks surrounding squad depth and, most importantly, current form; three defeats and a draw in the past year meant New Zealand, albeit briefly, lost their No 1 ranking to Wales last month, and there are gaps in the arsenal of Steve Hansen's side which should give contenders optimism ahead of this year's tournament in Japan.
But, before realistic hope turns into unrealistic expectation for the home nations, Australia and South Africa alike, a few statistics to illustrate New Zealand's dominance at rugby's showpiece event.
New Zealand top the charts for all-time Rugby World Cup points, tries, and games won – 44 out of 50. The All Blacks have NEVER lost a pool game, in eight Rugby World Cups, and they became the first ever country to defend their title, by winning in 2015. They're now chasing a historic hat-trick.
So then, why does now feel like Steve Hansen's side are at the lowest ebb they've ever been at under his eight-year tenure? To examine, we have to go back to the start of the four year cycle, after that convincing win in the final against Australia at Twickenham.
The retirements of McCaw, Carter and Ma'a Nonu after their 2015 triumph were anticipated, and preparations were well underway to replace them. Kieran Read took over as captain, and over a four-year period has undoubtedly thrived with the extra responsibility.
Beauden Barrett took over as fly-half, and won two consecutive IRB World Rugby Player of the Year awards, in 2016 and 2017, such were Barrett's (one of three siblings to play for the All Blacks) immaculate Test match performances. Not bad.
Solutions were found in the backs, as Rieko Ioane's explosion onto the scene meant 2015's breakthrough winger Nehe Milner-Skudder was quickly forgotten, and in the pack, Sam Whitelock's continued power and prominence meant the four-year cycle started off as it left off. Success, here, there and everywhere.
But, gradually in the past two years, cracks have begun to show. A thrilling drawn series with the Lions in 2017 was far from the end of the world - a failure to score a try in the second Test was, for instance, a simple anomaly.
But, when they lost in Ireland for the first time ever in November 2018 and failed to score a try again, it somewhat set the tone for what has been, by Hansen's standards, a sub-standard 2019.
Their Rugby Championship campaign started with a narrow victory in Argentina, and was followed by a 16-16 draw in Wellington against South Africa, who won the overall tournament. The most startlingly concerning result though was two weeks later in Perth, when New Zealand were thrashed, yes thrashed, by Australia, 47-26.
New Zealand, double-world-champions, finished the four-team tournament in third.
Now, while the All Blacks did inevitably recover to retain the Bledisloe Cup against Australia with a 36-point whitewash a week later at fortress Eden Park, the question marks are there for everyone to see. New Zealand open up the World Cup against South Africa in Yokohama - a match-up that could define their time in Japan.
Realistically though, whether it be first or second, New Zealand should cruise into the knockout stages. An 11-day break follows the South Africa clash, when they then play Canada and Namibia in the space of five days, before finishing off a week later against Italy, a team they have never lost to.
Top the group and New Zealand will face the runners-up of Pool A in the quarter-finals, meaning a likely clash with Scotland. Should they lose to South Africa however, a reunion with Ireland - who have a torrid World Cup record, having never reached the semi-finals - could be on the cards.
Squad-wise, New Zealand are obviously still riddled with first-class experience and talent. Stability and assuredness? Not so much.
In fact, if anything, the shock omission of Owen Franks from the 31-man squad is an indictment of the slumping levels in form. Franks has been a regular in the front row since Hansen took charge, but the constantly high standards set means one bad match, and you can be shown the door.
That seems to have been the way with Franks, who was dropped from the matchday squad following the loss to Australia in Perth and whose All Blacks career now looks at an end, with a move to Northampton Saints on the horizon.
Hansen has instead opted for Atu Moli and Angus Ta'avao, stating 'we believe the game requires us to have big mobile No 1s and No 3s and in this case, we just think the other guys that we've named are more so than he.'
The other glaring absentee from the regular All Blacks squad - though we have known this for a while now - is Damien McKenzie. The dynamic full-back tore his ACL playing in Super Rugby back in April, and will be a big loss to the reigning champions.
The net result of McKenzie's injury has been Barrett shifting to the No 15 jersey, with Canterbury's Richie Mo'unga taking over at 10, and Beauden's brother Jordie an excellent utility option from the bench. Incidentally, Mo'unga has been passed fit for the tournament after injuring his shoulder at the Rugby Championship.
Elsewhere, experienced lock Brodie Retallick has been named but is unlikely to play in the pool stages as he nurses a dislocated shoulder, while centre Ryan Crotty is similarly touch-and-go for September 21 following a broken thumb.
Flanker Liam Squire, who was a potential starter at No 6, opted not to take up a place in the 31-man squad owing to the fact he didn't feel 'physically or mentally' ready for test match rugby.
In the backs, veteran Ben Smith makes the cut, despite being dropped for the most recent outing against Australia, with this tournament being his last in an All Blacks shirt before he moves to French club Pau in the New Year.
So, can New Zealand do it again?
Recent history says yes, with the All Blacks dominating all before them in 2015, and grinding out victories despite a plethora of injuries in 2011. But, it should be worth noting that New Zealand are always favourites.. and that hasn't always resulted in victory.
The most infamous shock was 2007, when they were overpowered by a Thierry Dusautoir-inspired French performance in the quarter-finals. They also fell to hosts Australia in the 2003 semi-finals.
In 2019 though, some individual records beckon, for captain Read, powerhouse Whitelock and maverick Sonny Bill Williams. With Franks' exclusion, this triumvirate are chasing three consecutive world cups, having won winners' medals in 2011 and 2015.
With Hansen's squad depicting a blend of youth and experience, power and panache, control and charisma, New Zealand are quite rightly, the formidable favourites in Japan. Talk of a brief demise in quality and form will only serve as extra motivation to Read's side; a side whose winning mentality cannot be matched by any team in international rugby.
Everyone is doing it, but be warned. Right off the All Blacks at your peril.
Still widely regarded as the best player on the planet, Beauden Barrett's irresistible brand of lighting footwork, ingenious creativity and remarkable composure means he's the man the All Blacks constantly turn to for a spark.
It does, however, remain to be seen how Barrett's role will change if he plays at full-back, with Richie Mo'unga at fly-half, which occurred at the Rugby Championship.
New Zealand's best-ever coach. The former Wales boss was assistant to mentor Sir Graham Henry when the All Blacks won on home-soil in 2011, before taking the reins.
Since then, he has overseen an unprecedented period of success, the highlight alongside the 2015 triumph perhaps being winning every single match in 2013, which had never been done before in international rugby.
Hansen will however step down after this year's tournament in Japan.