World champions New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have arrived in Europe looking to continue their customary ascendancy over England, Wales, Ireland and France, the four teams most likely to challenge them for the Webb Ellis trophy next October.
England, in particular, need to step up their game before hosting the showpiece tournament, starting against the All Blacks at Twickenham on Saturday.
Coach Stuart Lancaster has earned high praise for the way he has revitalised the England side but the painful reality is that he has managed two wins over the southern hemisphere’s big three in 11 matches since taking the job in 2012.
England captain Chris Robshaw is under no illusions about the size of the task.
“Twickenham is our place and we are not going into the game to be second best,” he said.
“We need to put our game on the pitch and really impose ourselves. You have got to have a crack. There is no hiding place. You can’t stand off these guys for a second.”
England beat New Zealand 38-21 two years ago, the All Blacks’ last defeat before embarking on a 22-match unbeaten run which was ended by South Africa last month.
“We are in a better place than 2012, when we won,” Robshaw said. “We were defence orientated then, and prided ourselves on that defence, winning a lot of games because of it. But our attack has caught up.
“Now we can play both styles, adapt to what is necessary. This fixture will set the tone for the whole (November) series.”
England also play South Africa, Samoa and Australia in a daunting run of games that should show if they have a chance of winning the World Cup for the second time following their triumph in Australia in 2003.
That remains the only time the Webb Ellis Trophy has gone to a northern hemisphere team and France, Ireland and Wales will also be looking to establish their credentials over the next four weeks.
Wales face Australia on the opening weekend after losing their last nine tests against the Wallabies.
Captain Sam Warburton, however, does not think there is any psychological barrier to overcome.
“The first time I came into the squad was on the back of beating them in 2008, so you always have the belief,” he said.
“You are not unlucky nine times in a row. Australia have obviously been that smidge better than we have been over those nine fixtures.”
England, Australia and Wales have been drawn in the same World Cup pool and Warburton is relishing the challenge.
“It is a massive opportunity for the squad,” he said.
“It is coming to the time, which we’ve said year after year, with the World Cup on the horizon and the senior players in the group, that we really do have to get a win over one of these teams if we’re to be considered one of the best in the world.”
England beat Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in late 2002, a year before winning the World Cup.
“That’s why I respect the England team of 2003,” Warburton said. “When they had their autumn series they turned over all three of them and sent a real message to world rugby. That’s what we have got to aspire to.”
New Zealand, however, remain the benchmark and former All Blacks winger John Kirwan believes Steve Hansen’s team is the best ever.
“They’re outstanding,” he told BBC Radio. “A couple of guys are possibly the best ever in their position.
“What the All Blacks have is great depth in the squad, and he (Hansen) has really kicked on since the last World Cup,” Kirwan added.
“This current crop went through a whole lot of pain. They lost World Cups and it really hurt. I think they really learnt from those hard times.
“They have really worked on their decision-making under pressure. Because that’s what it comes down to, winning those tight ones. It comes down to critical moments. That leadership is our X-factor at the moment.”
(Editing by Ken Ferris)