McCaw cannot be kept in cotton wool
By RICHARD KNOWLER - The Press / Photo: Photosport
As if his plate isn't already heaped with problems, one of the more vexing issues for Graham Henry over the next three weeks will be figuring out how to ensure Richie McCaw remains fully fit for the three Tri-Nations tests.
Providing his knee survives his outing with his Christchurch club this afternoon, All Blacks skipper McCaw will play his first international of the year against the Wallabies at Eden Park next Saturday night before confronting the Springboks in Bloemfontein and Durban over the following two weekends.
While many questions were raised after the All Blacks' recent 1-all series draw with France and the tepid win over Italy, there was one message that would have been soaked up by Wallabies coach Robbie Deans and his Springboks counterpart Peter de Villiers: that the All Blacks' heartbeat does not thump so loud when McCaw is absent.
Not surprisingly McCaw will have a bullseye on his melon in the Tri-Nations and the Springboks penchant for softening up their opponents in the series win over the British and Irish Lions would not have gone unnoticed by All Blacks coach Henry.
While flanker Schalk Burger will not be sighted in either test against the All Blacks in the republic, having copped an eight-week suspension for digging his fingers into the eyes of wing Luke Fitzgerald, lock Bakkies Botha will return from his two-week ban for a "dangerous charge" that left prop Adam Jones with a dislocated shoulder.
Although Botha should never have been sidelined for that action it was no worse than what any other forward around the world does every Saturday there is little doubt his reputation finally caught up with him. Off-the-ball action is Botha's bread and butter, but whether the ban will encourage him to tone down his antics against the All Blacks, and McCaw, is debatable.
Firstly though, the All Blacks openside flanker has to survive the test against the Wallabies at Eden Park - a match that will be emotionally charged for the Australians as they seek to mark the 100th test match of McCaw's opponent, George Smith, with a victory.
Aggressive blindside flanker Rocky Elsom, who has been lured back home from Irish club Leinster, may start alongside No8 Wycliff Palu and Smith and one of their goals will be to soften up the New Zealand loosies in offence and defence.
Last season the All Blacks decided that McCaw could not keep shouldering the workload at the breakdown and trialled a left-right flanker theory before returning to a specialist in the No7 jersey.
Often championed for his ability to turn over the ball, McCaw is invaluable in many other facets. His leadership has grown immensely since taking over from Tana Umaga in 2006, his defence is often accurate and aggressive, he can be a reliable winner at the front and tail of the lineout and his pace allows him to be an effective link man and cover defender. Such is his prowess he lifts team-mates by just pulling on the same coloured jersey, but he cannot win matches on his own. McCaw cannot be plonked in cotton wool, but there are ways of limiting the damage.
Henry will welcome back another big influence in the side, No8 Rodney So'oialo and he, along with other veterans such as rake Andrew Hore, loosehead prop Tony Woodcock and lock Brad Thorn must be prepared to push back twice as hard when the Australians and Springboks start to shove.
Possible XV to play the Wallabies: Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokocoko, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Cory Jane, Luke McAlister, Jimmy Cowan, Rodney So'oialo, Richie McCaw (c), Jerome Kaino, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.