Richie McCaw's rugby personal crusade against Ireland on Saturday shows exactly why he will become one of the great All Blacks captains says assistant coach Steve Hansen.
Never one to shower praise on individuals, Hansen said McCaw's performance at Westpac Stadium was among the finest of a stellar 60-test career, inspiring New Zealand to a tight 21-11 win.
McCaw was the most experienced All Black in the team for the first time and he seemed to take the responsibility to heart, tearing into the fray from the outset with a mix of brutal tackling, potent ball-carrying and contesting of breakdown possession.
It was like gold in the dreadful conditions and helped slowly turn around a tentative start from New Zealand which opened the door on the possibility of a boilover.
Hansen was convinced the All Blacks' World Cup quarterfinal loss to France at Cardiff eight months ago had stung the 27-year-old, along with some questions about his leadership ability emerging after the World Cup review was released from the public and media.
"This was an important game for him, it was an opportunity to say 'right, we're moving forward' and give people something positive to talk about rather than all the negativity," Hansen said, marvelling at how McCaw had transferred his Super 14 playoff form with the Crusaders straight into the test arena. "He just keeps playing and playing really well," Hansen said. "You know when he's really up for it, which is most of the time, I might add."
The match was McCaw's 23rd as captain, moving him past Taine Randell and level with long-time provincial team-mate Reuben Thorne in third on the all-time test skippers' list. Sean Fitzpatrick leads with 51 tests and Wilson Whineray compiled 30.
Hansen believed McCaw would soon be mentioned in the same breath as the latter pair, who had carved a niche for themselves among the great names of the sport.
"I'm sure as time goes by he will become one of our great leaders," Hansen said."He's very much in his infancy as far as captaincy goes. We all know when you first start out as a captain it's not easy. He's done a remarkably good job from the get go but he's just going to get better and better at it."
The All Blacks have moved to preserve McCaw's longevity in the game by shifting fellow-workaholic Rodney So'oialo from No 8 to the side of the scrum.
The pair played on the left and right side for much of Saturday's game, effectively sharing the openside flanker workload.
"Both of them really physically knock their bodies around so hopefully it will look after them a little bit," Hansen said.
England are sure to be planning a "stop Richie" campaign to reduce his effectiveness when they face New Zealand in the first of two tests at Auckland on Saturday.
Australia famously tried to rough McCaw up at the same Eden Park venue two years ago and a frustrated Ireland also resorted to underhand tactics at Westpac Stadium on Saturday.
However, it backfired when prop Marcus Horan was spotted throwing a punch at the prone flanker, conceding a 60th minute penal try that broke an 11-11 deadlock and sent the All Blacks on the way to victory.
Second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu slid over for the matchwinning try 3min later.
McCaw praised his team's composure throughout the match, saying they were never flustered when the visitors led through most of the first half, helped by try to Paddy Wallace that cancelled out an early score to All Blacks winger Sitiveni Sivivatu.
"Even when we were 11-all in the second half, there was no panic. There was composure there, belief in what we were doing," he said."We were hoping to use the ball a bit more but we realised today it was probably going to be nasty weather so we adapted pretty well.The forwards took charge of set piece, we won most of our lineout ball, our drives were right there."
Coach Graham Henry believed his team will face an English side stronger up front than the Irish.
He hoped his new-look forward pack would take confidence from their first hitout of the season.
That included shaven-headed Hurricanes prop Neemia Tialata and John Schwalger, who stood tall in the absence of the injured Tony Woodcock and following a knee injury on the half-hour to his Blues team-mate John Afoa.
Uncapped Ben Franks, 24, was called into the squad as prop cover when they arrived in Auckland yesterday but was an unlikely starter as Crusaders team-mate Greg Somerville would be back from a week's rest to pack down against England steamroller Andy Sheridan.
Hansen indicated there would be few selection changes as the coaches were keen to bed in early combinations.
The only other injury to emerge from Saturday was a broken nose for So'oialo, suffered when accidentally struck by the forearm of team-mate Brad Thorn.