England will conclude a frustrating November at Twickenham when they face world champions New Zealand on Saturday.
With a comfortable win as expected under their belts against Fiji, England went into their matches against Australia and South Africa with a sense of optimism and quiet confidence.
Instead, they have emerged a fortnight later aware of their deficiencies and with their captain under pressure following a series of costly calls at key moments against the Wallabies and Springboks. Many felt before November that England were on their way up. The last three weeks have proven that there is still plenty for them to learn.
Who better to provide a rugby masterclass than New Zealand? Unbeaten in 2012 with 12 wins and one draw against Australia, they are playing at an astonishing level even by their own imperious standards.
Young blood in Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano and Julian Savea have eased into the starting XV without any concern, assuring that this All Blacks side did not peak when they finally recaptured the Rugby World Cup last October. If anything they have improved; stronger, faster and more clinical than that trophy-winning side.
England however are not without their own talents. Chris Robshaw's decision-making in recent weeks may be under the spotlight but his dedication and work-rate cannot be questioned. Alex Goode has shown that he can keep defences guessing, whilst Manu Tuilagi remains a struggle to contain.
Alex Corbisiero's return against South Africa highlighted that he is England's most prolific loosehead, although the interpretation of the scrums left something to be desired. Joe Launchbury has taken to Test rugby well and will no doubt fulfil a childhood dream of facing New Zealand when he runs out on Saturday.
Too much about England however remains uncertain. Does Brad Barritt do enough going forward? Can Tom Youngs rediscover the accuracy at the line-out that he had against Australia but eluded him against South Africa? Players who previously have enjoyed great highs for England - Chris Ashton in particular - appear far from their devastating best, their confidence misplaced.
That is something you cannot say about the All Blacks. Confidence has never been an issue and when you have 788 caps in your squad - it shouldn't be. Dan Carter (93) and Richie McCaw (115) have more than England's whole side put together (206).
The incident with Andrew Hore against Wales though has left New Zealand embarrassed according to Steve Hansen. On Saturday they will look to emphasise once again that they are the greatest rugby side on the planet, not a team that wins by thuggery.
When you possess the greatest skill set, set-piece, squad and attacking threats as New Zealand do, the game is relatively simple. For every injury to Carter, you have Aaron Cruden. For every suspension for Hore, you have Keven Mealamu.
Whatever your allegiance, there is no denying the superiority of this All Blacks side - after all, they have beaten every other side they've come across in 2012. A time will come when New Zealand are no longer the world's best and this vintage crop will be looked back on. Best to savour it while it lasts.
Ones to watch:
For England: After his surprise nomination for the IRB Player of the Year earlier this week, all eyes will be on fly-half Owen Farrell. The Saracen returns to the starting line-up in place of the injured Toby Flood and kicked well against South Africa, but questions remain over whether he can spark England's backline into life. Elsewhere, Manu Tuilagi has to shine in these sorts of clashes with New Zealand if he is truly to be considered as a world-class talent. Still only 21, England need him to perform.
For New Zealand: Two of New Zealand's greats are not getting any younger, so any time Dan Carter and Richie McCaw run out at Twickenham it is a moment to savour. Both are included on the IRB shortlist along with Farrell and this will be McCaw's final Test before he takes a sabbatical in 2013. With the thought of a deserved rest around the corner, McCaw will not want to be out fishing with the lingering thought of a loss to England on his mind. Carter, meanwhile, has bounced back from the disappointment of missing the Rugby World Cup final with an outstanding year and should control this one from start to finish.
Head-to-head: With caps littered across both sides, it's two players with the fewest that will face-off in an intriguing duel on Saturday. Joe Launchbury initially impressed off the bench against Australia and made his first start last week against the Springboks, holding his own in the contact area and showing off his athleticism. Brodie Retallick meanwhile has been fighting it out with Luke Romano to be the heir to Brad Thorn's throne - bringing intense physicality to the table and proving to be a reliable operator at the set-piece.
2010: New Zealand won 26-16 at Twickenham
2009: New Zealand won 19-6 at Twickenham
2008: New Zealand won 32-6 at Twickenham
2008: New Zealand won 44-12 in Christchurch
2008: New Zealand won 37-20 in Auckland
2006: New Zealand won 41-20 at Twickenham
2005: New Zealand won 23-19 at Twickenham
2004: New Zealand won 36-12 in Auckland
2004: New Zealand won 36-3 in Dunedin
2003: England won 15-13 in Wellington
2002: England won 31-28 at Twickenham
Prediction: It might be the end of a long year for New Zealand, but that is irrelevant. They will want to end 2012 unbeaten and in some style at one of the stadiums in world rugby where winning means everything. England's best chance is to remain in the match for as long as possible, meaning an ironclad defence and plenty of possession - two factors they had against South Africa but failed to capitalise on. Rather than an upset, this should be another lesson in England's education, and a fitting end to a great season for New Zealand. All Blacks by 15.
England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Mike Brown, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Alex Corbisiero.
Replacements: 16 David Paice, 17 David Wilson, 18 Mako Vunipola, 19 Courtney Lawes 20 James Haskell, 21 Danny Care, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Jonathan Joseph.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumunia, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Victor Vito, 21 Piri Weepu, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Ben Smith.
Date: Saturday, 1 December
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
Television match official: Giulio De Santis (Italy)
by Ben Coles