Following their 33-10 win over Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, the New Zealand rugby union team have remained undefeated in 20 successive international fixtures, a run that stretches back to September 2011.

Combative | New Zealand winger Julian Savea fends off Wales’ Alex Cuthbert at the Millennium Stadium. (Image | 3News)

Add to that figure a victory over England this weekend and they will extend what is already a world record figure to 21 matches unbeaten.

With six Rugby Championship titles in the previous eight years and Rugby World Cup success last year, the question is beginning to circulate: could this All Blacks side be the best of all time?

One of the problems with making a statement such as this in rugby union is that, as a professional sport, it is comparatively new.

Prior to 1995 playing for both club and country was strictly for amateurs, meaning that the game at its highest level was a far cry from today’s lightning fast, hard-hitting global spectacle.

Quite simply, it lacked the dedicated coaching strategies, training schemes and player commitment that teams enjoy today.

Players found it hard to reach truly exceptional levels of fitness or skill when they were working five days a week in order to sustain their passion. As such, it can be hard to compare teams from various points in history.

Presence | Jonah Lomu fends off the chasing England players in his prime for the Kiwis. (Image | The Telegraph)

The 1995 All Blacks side, for instance, featuring Jonah Lomu at his prime, the boot of Andrew Mehrtens, and all time great Sean Fitzpatrick as captain could also stake a similar claim, but rugby union has evolved to such an extent since then that the two sets of players may as well be playing different sports.

If one were to search any further back, it would be no contest. Teams from the 1950s or ’60s would be outmatched in every area – from pace, to strength, to technicality.

Thus it is not a question of the best of all time when compared to past teams, but rather the best in terms of where the current All Blacks side stand among their peers, which is also a problem for the class of 2011-12.

Winning run

Now let us examine that winning streak. Coming off the back of two successive defeats to Australia and South Africa in the 2011 Tri Nations tournament, the current Kiwi crop entered the World Cup on home turf, laying down the first four of their victories in pool games against Canada, Japan, Tonga and a lacklustre France.

A quarter final triumph over an Argentina side in transition followed, along with a semi final cruise past an Australian squad that had been inconsistent all tournament, which set the home favourites up for an unconvincing 8-7 victory in the final over the French.

After this came a three-match whitewash of a touring Ireland squad, the 2012 Rugby Championship, and finally the recent wins over Scotland, Italy and Wales in the Autumn Internationals.

Off-form | Argentina lose 33-10 in the Rugby World Cup to the All Blacks, who score a try through Kieran Read. (Image | Bleacher Report)

Certainly a case could be made that their opponents in this period have been distinctly out of sorts. Argentina and South Africa were not their usual selves, with a number of high-profile players bowing out recently and new faces emerging from club rugby.

Australia were blighted by injury in the Rugby Championship, losing captain David Pocock to injury as well as both halves of the world’s best scrum half pairing, Will Genia and Quade Cooper.

The Autumn Internationals have been disastrous for their Northern Hemisphere adversaries, with Scotland staring into the void at 12th in the world, Italy still not quite up to the standard of other first tier nations and Wales unsteady on their feet after imploding against Argentina and Samoa. You would have to look back to 2009 to find a time when New Zealand were not top of the world rankings.

Yet while their winning streak may have been aided by the state of international rugby, it is impossible to ignore the other statistics in favour of today’s All Blacks, and indeed their actual performances.

Current stars

Consider captain Richie McCaw, who has appeared for his country 115 times and captained them on a staggering 76 occasions, both of which are New Zealand records. In the process he has won the International Rugby Board’s world player of the year award three times, more than any other player.

Superstar | Dan Carter has 93 caps for New Zealand and is regarded as one of the sport’s all time greats. (Image | Horiwood Blog)

Or take talismanic fly half Dan Carter, the highest points scorer in international rugby history and probably the best number 10 of all time. Barring injury, both should have another Rugby World Cup ahead of them.

Throughout the squad, you can find talent and experience. Hooker Andrew Hore may well be the best in the world at the moment, while Sam Whitelock just keeps getting better at lock and Kieran Read provides strength and intelligence at the base of the pack.

The back three combination of Israel Dagg, Cory Jane and Julian Savea can punish any defence, while the brute force of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith in midfield seems to be able to make ground under any circumstances.

What is more, the sheer depth of New Zealand’s player base is staggering: injury to Savea, for example, would open up a starting spot to Hosea Gear, Richard Kahui, Zac Guildford, or even Sonny Bill Williams – all of whom are world class players with international caps.

A case in point was the win against Wales, where the injured Carter was replaced by Aaron Cruden, who made all seven of his challenging kicks at goal.

It says a lot that the only solution Wales could offer to break the New Zealand defence was to cram 13 men into a line-out and steamroll over from five metres out, while their giant defensive line was carved open at will by the mercilessly efficient Kiwi attack.

In short, the evidence in favour of this year’s Silver Ferns is inconclusive. While they have been literally unbeatable for some time, it will take a couple of years and sterner tests of character against rebuilt opposition to decide.

The road to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, taking in the Rugby Championship, friendlies and retirements will not be easy. If the All Blacks emerge on the other side in the same place they are today, then they could well lay claim to being, indisputably, the greatest international rugby side the world has ever seen.

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