June 3rd, 2009
Richie McCaw will not have a physical presence on the field against France, but the injured All Blacks captain is playing an important mentoring role in the lead-up to New Zealand's early season rugby tests.
McCaw, who will be unavailable until New Zealand's defence of the Tri-Nations in July, was still floating around the team hotel on Wednesday, welcoming and congratulating his successor Mils Muliaina.
He has also taken time out to brief Adam Thomson on the intricacies of the openside flanker's role.
McCaw sought out Muliaina when the 26-man squad assembled for a three-day camp at their west Auckland base - the first stage of preparations for the first test against France in Dunedin next Saturday.
Although Muliaina has led the Chiefs for the past two Super 14 seasons - and has 68 test caps - the fullback was still keen to absorb any insights McCaw could offer in terms of test leadership.
"It still hasn't really sunk in," Muliaina said of his temporary reign."It feels a bit strange so I had a good chat with Richie when he came to my room to congratulate me. I'll be getting alongside him again and I'll be asking a few of the experienced guys in the team for help."
The 28-year-old has the captaincy thrust upon him shortly after the Chiefs were decimated in last weekend's Super 14 final in Pretoria and admitted he was still jaded from the long flight back from South Africa.
The squad, which includes new caps Tanerau Latimer, Isaac Ross and Wyatt Crockett, went through their paces for the first time today with Muliaina saying he would be taking a low-key approach until the team shifts south.
"Next week, I'll talk a little bit more when we get into camp," he said."The focus for the next couple of days is learning the new game plans, sorting out the calls and getting into the environment again."
With McCaw suffering a knee ligament strain and veteran No 8 Rodney So'oialo spelled until the Tri-Nations, gelling a new-look loose forward trio is among the priorities for assistant coach Steve Hansen.
Kieran Read and Liam Messam are being groomed to step in for Soialo despite both being more familiar with the blindside flank - Jerome Kaino's role.
"We've lost a lot of experience with Richie and Rodney not there but Jerome's been there for us all last season; Kieran and Liam toured with us (to Hong Kong, the UK and Ireland) last November. Liam's spent time at No 8 for the Chiefs and Read's done the same at the Crusaders.
"The big task is getting them to operate as a threesome as opposed to individuals," Hansen said.
Latimer and the versatile Thomson are candidates for McCaw's position.
Hansen said the camp, which ends on Friday, was also vital in assimilating yet another set of new laws governing the break down and lineout.
"There's two new rules we've never played before. At tackle time you're allowed to have the ball when the ruck forms, you can keep your hands on it. We'll have to modify how we approach the ruck from an attacking and defensive point of view. There's going to be opportunities to steal ball but conversely the opposition do to. We have to be really effective at keeping our ball and looking after it."
Lineouts also revert to having the equal number of participants.
Meanwhile, the first wave of the 30-man French squad was to arrive in Auckland tonight and early tomorrow via Singapore.
Seven players from Clermont Auvergne and Perpignan - who contest France's domestic Top 14 final this weekend - arrive on Monday.
The All Blacks train again tomorrow, when it is hoped senior lock Ali Williams will be able to test his Achilles injury. Halfback Brendon Leonard, who missed the Chiefs' Super 14 semi and final with a hamstring strain, ran freely.