NZPA - June 22, 2008, 5:33 pm
A patchy start to the rugby season is the least of the All Blacks' concerns after captain and inspiration Richie McCaw was ruled out for at least six weeks today with a serious ankle injury.
New Zealand rugby's greatest fear was realised when scans today revealed world class openside McCaw had suffered a high ligament tear in his left ankle half an hour into last night's 44-12 second test defeat of England.
The injury is nearly identical to one suffered by Crusaders and All Blacks teammate Daniel Carter during the Super 14 which kept the first five-eighth out for six weeks.
McCaw will miss the bulk of the Tri-Nations -- the two opening tests against South Africa on July 5 (Wellington) and July 12 (Dunedin), and tests against Australia on July 26 (Sydney) and August 2 (Auckland). A return could come on August 16 against the Springboks in Cape Town, the penultimate test of the campaign.
The injury problems don't stop there, with lock Ali Williams rated 50 percent at best to play the South African opener, which would leave a pack desperately light on test experience to face the world champions.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry made little effort to play down the impact of McCaw's absence.
"It's obviously a huge blow, that's obvious to everybody. He's the captain of the side, probably the best seven in the world," Henry said.
"If he's not playing, it's going to create pressure. People have to step up and do the job."
Team doctor Deb Robinson said an accurate time frame was hard to diagnose so early but believed six weeks was a best case scenario.
"We know because of where the ligament is that it's a significant injury. These high ankle strains are severe. They are nasty, full stop," said Robinson, surprised the fearless flanker hadn't suffered more throughout his 62-test career. "He's had a golden run really."
Robinson wasn't convinced about Williams' chance of recovery from a more conventional ankle sprain inside two weeks. He would undergo intensive treatment over coming days.
A replacement will be named to cover McCaw later this week, with uncapped New Zealand Maori No 7 Tanerau Latimer or Chris Masoe the most likely candidates.
Daniel Braid would have been a logical replacement but was injured with the Maori last week.
McCaw's replacement as captain should be Rodney So'oialo, with assistant coach Wayne Smith delighted with how the experienced loose forward took the helm last night.
"He did a hell of a good job and he's got a lot of mana in the squad so that will be the way to bet I would think."
Smith said McCaw was desperately disappointed, particularly after hitting rare form in lifting the Crusaders to the Super 14 title and leading from the front through the new-look All Blacks' June campaign.
"It's disappointing for him because he's in such great form," Smith said. "He's been so important for us these last three weeks. Emotionally he'll be feeling pretty down."
Meanwhile, halfback Brendon Leonard was today effectively ruled out of the Tri-Nations. Cartilage damage to his knee has worsened and he will undergo minor surgery, meaning reserve Jimmy Cowan will remain with the squad indefinitely.
More promising was the return to action of reserve Tony Woodcock last night and the recovery of fellow-Blues prop John Afoa from knee injury.
Both will be among about half the squad to play club rugby at the weekend and, if fit, will see cover options Afoa and Ben Franks jettisoned from the squad.
Henry said last night's five tries-to-two performance against England was an improvement on their 37-20 first-test win at Auckland in several areas but still had him concerned at his team's progress.
"We're struggling to get good ball at the tackle area at times. Set piece ball was pretty good, the lineout struggled after Ali went off," Henry said."And defensively we lacked numbers at times in the first half. The boys played a lot better in the second half, I thought Rodney's leadership was quite special."
It was still New Zealand's second-biggest win over England in 31 tests, behind the 64-22 win at Dunedin 10 years ago.
Carter was at his brilliant best. He tallied 22 points, set up the opening try to rookie centre Richard Kahui and scored one himself as he took control of the first half, won 20-0 by the hosts.
"The score flattered us at halftime, I don't think we were as good as all that," Smith said."We improved through the second half (but) we've still got a long way to go."
The second-half tries went to second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu and reserves Sione Lauaki and Cowan while the often ponderous visitors crossed through halfback Danny Care and winger Tom Varndell.
With the All Blacks forced to make more than 150 tackles, Henry was pleased for the week off before the team regather on Sunday.
"A lot of the guys need some space, particularly the Crusaders boys who haven't had a break for three or four months."