Returning All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw
Despite winning 13 of 15 Tests played since the beginning of 2012, including a perfect haul in last year’s inaugural Rugby Championship, New Zealand’s form vane keeps pointing north to London, where they were thumped 38-21 by England last year.
England were on fire at Twickenham that day, New Zealand strangely lackluster and coming to the end of a long season. But until such time as they can prove it was just a blip in their perennially high standards, there will be some doubt over the vintage of this current crop of All Blacks.
It is one of sport’s truisms that there is no such thing as a weak New Zealand team, and they proved that yet again by comfortably winning this summer’s Test series against France 3-0. They weren't at their best, but that was still too good for France.
But whether they will be good enough to match their record of last year will depend on whether they have managed to banish the demons of their record defeat to England.
The form of their Super 15 teams certainly gives reason for optimism, with defending champions Waikato Chiefs reaching the final after edging past the star-studded Canterbury Crusaders 20-19 in a clash of real quality.
None of the Chiefs players were named in the preliminary All Blacks squad announced Monday, but coach Steve Hansen was able to recall World Cup-winning skipper and New Zealand’s favourite son Richie McCaw following his six-month sabbatical from rugby.
McCaw’s leadership and breakdown ability will again be crucial to New Zealand’s chances, as will the game management and goal-kicking of star fly-half Dan Carter. Hansen certainly thinks his captain is ready for the challenges ahead, as reported by ESPN.
He’s in pretty good shape. By the time it gets to August 17 he’ll have had two more games, so at this point he’s coming along nicely.
With the likes of Carter, Israel Dagg, Conrad Smith, Julian Savea and Ma’a Nonu in their back line, the All Blacks undoubtedly have the speed and cunning to worry Australia, who they meet back-to-back in their opening games, South Africa and Argentina.
This stunning team effort against France, finished off by Beauden Barrett on his home ground, suggests they will be as dangerous as ever in broken play.
It is up front where they must prove that the soft underbelly on display at Twickenham was temporary and that there is no danger of it becoming a permanent issue.
England’s forwards bossed that encounter, and similar vulnerability will be targeted during the forthcoming Rugby Championship, especially by the scrum-loving Springboks and Pumas.
New Zealand’s front-five enforcers Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett and Andrew Hore need to step up and show Twickenham was a one-off.
New Zealand 2013 Rugby Championship schedule
Aug 17 v Australia (Sydney)
Aug 24 v Australia (Wellington)
Sept 7 v Argentina (Waikato)
Sept 14 v South Africa (Auckland)
Sept 28 v Argentina (La Plata)
Oct 5 v South Africa (Argentina)