By DANIEL GILHOOLY
Wednesday, 02 July 2008
Coach Graham Henry says it is time the All Blacks broke free of their Richie McCaw security blanket.
The first major All Blacks rugby test without inspirational captain McCaw for several seasons arrives at Westpac Stadium here on Saturday when they open their Tri-Nations defence against South Africa.
The consistently outstanding flanker is into the second week of a six-week recovery period from an ankle injury, leaving Rodney So'oialo to inherit the captaincy and No 7 jersey for the next four tests.
Henry believes there is a silver lining to McCaw's absence, that his new-look team can prove they don't need one of the game's modern greats either on the field or involved in the buildup to reach a high standard.
"This team needs to take the responsibility of this game without him," Henry said."With him being around, they may be looking over their shoulder at him for advice. I don't think that's the right thing to do, I think they just have to get on with it."
Assistant coach Steve Hansen said it was pointless trying to prepare differently without McCaw. He had faith in the loose trio of So'oialo, who has moved from No 8 to make way for Jerome Kaino, and Adam Thomson to cover his loss in unison.
"You can't replace a Richard McCaw, he's such a great player," Hansen said."Everyone has to take part of his shoes and fill it up. If everyone does a little bit extra on what they are doing then we've managed to make up for him not being there."
Henry said 44-test veteran So'oialo had been a key member of his player leadership group for several seasons and an increasingly influential player.
"And he'll get a lot of support from the leaders in the team like he did last week and like what Richie gets every week."
Sione Lauaki held onto the reserve loose forward spot from the recalled Chris Masoe in one of several close calls for the selectors.
Other winners of selection duels were fullback Mils Muliaina from Leon MacDonald, winger Rudi Wulf over Anthony Tuitavake, centre Conrad Smith over Richard Kahui and hooker Andrew Hore for a fourth straight test from Keven Mealamu although Hansen stressed the race for the No 2 jersey was tight.
Assistant coach Wayne Smith enjoyed the contentious backline decisions, particularly at centre where Kahui's debut in the second test against England was a classy one.
"It's turned into quite a competitive position, we were hoping this would happen," Smith said."Richard's game has certainly put the heat on but Conrad was very good in the first two weeks and he deserves the opportunity to start."
The only doubt surrounds the fitness of lock Ali Williams, who was named to start in his 50th test yesterday despite still struggling with an ankle injury. He was to train with the team for the first time today but only in certain drills and if his progress is unconvincing will be replaced by Anthony Boric.
Henry said a clash with the world champions was a dream way to begin the nine-test Tri-Nations and hoped it would capture the imagination of a rugby public still in need of convincing judging by crowd and television interest at Super 14 and test matches this year.
"I can't see there's a bigger test in the world, quite frankly. Not for us anyway," he said."I assume that the public will support it totally. If they're not going to support this test match, they're not going to support any, are they? It's one of those huge test matches."
A dominant theme for the week will be readjusting to the Experimental Law Variations and preparing tactically for two new rules - placing no restriction on numbers in the lineout and allowing mauls to be collapsed by the defensive team.
Henry joined Springboks counterpart Peter de Villiers in describing the test as a journey into the unknown because of the laws.
"We're trying to visualise the future, what could happen," Henry said."I guess both sides are going to go in and try to think on their feet as the game goes through."
Though he might have wanted other circumpstances to take over the captaincy, congratulations to Rodney!
All Blacks halfback Brendon Leonard will be out of rugby for about four months after undergoing complicated knee surgery.