New Zealand's apparent improvements since the opening round of the World Cup, and even since losing a series to Ireland on home soil a year ago, are not to be taken at face value, according to Ruaidhri O'Connor and Liam Toland.
Ireland go in as favourites for the first time against an All Blacks side when the two face off in Saint Denis on Saturday night. This is off the back of a 17-game unbeaten run, having topped Group B and beating the defending World Champions in the process.
New Zealand, on the other hand, lost to France in the opening round of the World Cup, two weeks after getting blown out the water by the Springboks in Twickenham, and have only faced subpar and downright poor opposition since.
For former Leinster and Munster back rower Liam Toland, the New Zealand have improved since those two drubbings, and even since their series defeat to Ireland last year. The Independent's Ruaidhri O'Connor is not as convinced.
New Zealand have improved...
Speaking on Wednesday Night Rugby, Toland explained why he was slightly nervy about facing New Zealand in Paris on Saturday.
"There's a physicality to their game that New Zealand have brought," Toland said. "Notwithstanding the beating they took to South Africa a couple of weeks ago, they've gotten way more physical.
"Their attention to detail around the breakdown is infinitely stronger. Although they are still coughing up turnovers at the breakdown, their detail there is way stronger. So, it's less of a route that Ireland have.
"[Thanks to] Jason Ryan, the forwards coach, their lineout maul defence has improved significantly. Their scrummaging... they need [Tyrel Lomax] to start, but... their scrummaging has improved.
"This is a formidable All Blacks side. It doesn't have the marquee names that we're used to, but there's an awful lot to this side, and they've improved drastically week-on-week."
One player that Toland singled out for criticism, though, was New Zealand's captain Sam Cane.
"Sam Cane will start because he's captain, but if he wasn't captain, he wouldn't start," Toland added. "There's more talented, better players there. The general Irish public don't know their names, but they're there."
... but by how much?
For O'Connor, who joined Toland on Wednesday Night Rugby, all of New Zealand's supposed improvements are superficial, as they have not faced the challenges that Ireland have.
"I think that a lot their improvements have been against poor opposition," O'Connor said. "One of the things Ireland have in their locker right now is that the strength is in the north.
"The Six Nations is a much tougher opposition, South Africa aside probably, than the Rugby Championship. Super Rugby is not as good as the Champions Cup.
"In the Rugby Championship, they're beating Australia and Argentina, what have we learned about them at this tournament? They're not very good.
"Ireland have been playing much tougher games across the 17-match unbeaten run that they're on. The question I have about this Irish team is are they battle hardened or are they war weary?"
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