The dominant team of the current professional era face challengers from every angle in their quest for a historic third successive Rugby World Cup title.
Four years ago in England, Steve Hansen’s side were heavy favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup and they duly delivered with a final win over the Wallabies.
However, this time round, it is considered to be the most open tournament in years as questions arise after the All Blacks’ mixed build-up to rugby’s global showpiece.
A narrow win over Argentina, a 16-16 draw against South Africa and a record 47-26 defeat against the Wallabies in Perth had some Kiwi fans believing the team were in a state of crisis before the tournament even began.
But just like great teams do, they responded emphatically to stick 36 points on Australia at Eden Park the following week and confirm their status as World Cup favourites.
New Zealand open their defence against South Africa in Yokohoma on Saturday – a match that could define their passage to a third consecutive final.
But, whether they finish first or second in Pool A, the All Blacks should storm into the knockout stages.
After the match against the Springboks, they play Canada and Namibia in the space of five days, before finishing off a week later against Italy in Toyota.
If they top the group, they are likely to face Scotland in the quarter-finals and England in the semis. Should they lose to the Springboks, they will likely face Ireland in the last eight and Wales in the last four.
Tough selection calls by management has seen 108-times capped prop Owen Franks omitted from the 31-man squad – a resounding shock considering the Northampton man was one of Hansen’s most trusted lieutenants over the years.
The All Blacks coach instead opted for youth and mobility with the likes of Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao – players who have earned just nine caps between them.
As disappointing a blow as it may be, Franks’ absence – along with Ngani Laumape and Liam Squire – shows the team’s considerable strength in depth.
The other striking absentee from the squad – though it is old news – is Damien McKenzie.
The elusive full-back suffered an ACL injury playing for the Chiefs back in April, and will be a significant loss to the reigning champions’ ambitions in Japan.
The result of McKenzie’s devastating injury has seen star man Beauden Barrett shift to full-back during the Rugby Championship, with Richie Mo’unga taking over at fly-half in a dual playmaking role.
Whether Hansen sticks to this tactic for the entire competition remains to be seen but it proved effective in Bledisloe 2 at Eden Park.
The battle for the wing spots will be interesting with Seevu Reece and George Bridge showing their pace, power and overall class against Australia and Tonga in recent weeks. A loss of form for Rieko Ioane – with 23 tries in 26 matches – could put his place in jeopardy.
Elsewhere, 2014 World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick has been named in the squad but is unlikely to play until the knockout stages as he recovers from a dislocated shoulder. Centre Ryan Crotty, meanwhile, is touch and go but should feature at some point during the pool stage.
Recent history suggests the All Blacks should secure a third successive title but an upset is always possible at the World Cup. It is a competition where anything can happen. The last big shock was back in 2007 when New Zealand were dominated by a Thierry Dusautoir-inspired France side in the quarter-finals.
In 2019 though, some individual records beckon for captain Kieran Read, lock Sam Whitelock and centre Sonny Bill Williams. The experienced trio are chasing three consecutive World Cup winners medals, having played key roles in the 2011 and 2015 triumphs.
With Hansen’s squad depicting a strong blend of youth, experience, hunger and panache, New Zealand are right to be considered the formidable force in Japan.
Their small slip-ups over the last 12 months will give the rest of the competition just the faintest glimmer of hope, but in a high pressure environment, the All Blacks simply know how to get the job done.
Nickname(s): All Blacks
Emblem: Silver fern frond
Union: New Zealand Rugby Union
Head coach: Steve Hansen
Captain: Kieran Read
Most caps: Richie McCaw (148)
Top scorer: Dan Carter (1598)
Top try scorer: Doug Howlett (49)
Best Finish: Winners (1987, 2011, 2015)
Fixtures: South Africa (September 21), Canada (October 2), Namibia (October 6), Italy (October 12)
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