Duncan Johnstone, Sunday Star Times
May 11, 2009 - 10:23AM
Richie McCaw is so good at his role he actually poses a major problem for the All Blacks heading towards RWC 2011.
They are overflowing with established and exciting options at blindside flanker and No 8 but the race to be McCaw's deputy as a specialist openside flanker remains wide open.
These days it's not a job with a lot of pluses. McCaw's value to the team as a leader and as the world's best seven mean that opportunities don't come along too often when you are working in his shadow.
It's that paucity of game time that has led McCaw's former deputies - Marty Holah, Chris Masoe and Daniel Braid - to all pack their bags in frustration.
It's a position that desperately needs to be filled. McCaw will require rest stops along the road the All Blacks travel over the next two years as they develop and refine their cup squad. He's operating under the recurring concussion worries that have already seen him twice spelled during this year's Super 14.
Significantly, the All Blacks lost two of the three tests McCaw missed last year with an ankle injury as Rodney So'oialo and Adam Thomson were pressed into makeshift openside cover from their preferred back row positions.
One man doesn't make a team but McCaw certainly goes close.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry has spoken encouragingly of the alternatives starting to put their hands up.
"There are one or two other sevens [flankers] around the country who have played particularly well throughout the Super 14 and I think it is becoming quite competitive," he said without naming names.
Scott Waldrom got the backup role on the end of year tour and his trip summed up the scenario. He played against Munster midweek but didn't feature in any of the test 22s. He has pushed his cause with the Hurricanes, as has his main opponent late last year, Tanerau Latimer, with the Chiefs.
Josh Blackie's return from Japan has been blighted by the plague of injuries that have handicapped the Blues. Unlucky not to get an All Blacks callup during his original tour of duty with the Highlanders, Blackie simply needs more game time to convince the selectors second time around.
"He's had a couple of quality games. Is that enough? I think it's still a bit grey there," said Henry.
It could be that the All Blacks don't carry a specialist openside in their squad for the first phase of the season at home, preferring to keep McCaw's would-be understudy busy with the Junior All Blacks, who have thankfully been reinvented in 2009.
Jerome Kaino was the big mover last year as he upped his work rate, particularly with some ferocious defence, to join McCaw and So'oialo in the favoured starting trio of loose forwards.
They were a key to the All Blacks' success in a rebuilding season that unearthed Thomson, rewarded Kieran Read and Liam Messam and gave Waldrom his moment.
All four have had massive Super 14s, with Messam epitomising their further development this year.
"I think he has been fantastic. His leadership off the park has been great and on the park his play is just getting tougher and tougher," coach Ian Foster said of Messam's contribution to the Chiefs' strong Super 14 charge. "He has become a very influential rugby player. We are delighted with where he is at."
Another Chief, the enigmatic Sione Lauaki, is pushing his claims again.
Their versatility makes it difficult to pick who will miss out in the mix to be backups to So'oialo and Kaino.
It's a position the selectors would love to have at No 7.
Too good . . . Richie McCaw is so good at his role he actually poses a major problem for the All Blacks heading towards RWC 2011.