By GREG GROWDEN - SMH / Photo: Photosport
While there is no such thing as a one-man rugby team, the Wallabies anticipate a massive transformation in the All Blacks side when skipper Richie McCaw returns next week to head their Bledisloe Cup campaign in Auckland.
As the Wallabies discovered at the same venue last year, McCaw has a way of turning a meandering outfit into the ultimate menace.
When the Wallabies headed to Auckland last year, the All Blacks were teetering after several substandard performances, including losing to Australia in Sydney, but had the advantage of their renowned openside breakaway returning. McCaw dominated at Eden Park, where the Wallabies were beaten 39-10.
The scene is similar this time around. Again the Wallabies will head to Eden Park on July 18 high in confidence after four recent wins, believing they can upset a unstable All Blacks unit. And again McCaw is returning from injury for the Bledisloe Cup encounter.
Not surprisingly, considering Robbie Deans's close association with McCaw at provincial level with the Crusaders, the Wallabies coach yesterday stressed that with the All Blacks captain back, Australia's task of winning in Auckland for the first time in 23 years had become that much more difficult.
"Richie just adds a lot," Deans said. "Last year we went to Auckland where Richie returned for that game, and the transformation of the All Black side that night from the one we played in Sydney was remarkable. Richie was obviously a big part of that."
In Deans's eyes, McCaw is close to the complete player. Countering him is the ultimate challenge for any coach, even one who knows him backwards.
In a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Deans said that when confronting McCaw, it was important to recognise "how accurate you need to be".
"You only get one crack at it," Deans said. "If you are not effective with your first arriver in dealing with Richie, you don't get a second opportunity, and he'll impact on the game."
Deans said it was McCaw's physical capabilities that separated him from other openside breakaways.
"He's a bloke who has a huge edge," he said. "He just goes and goes and goes. It's remarkable what he can give ... But what probably sets him apart is not just the quantity of involvements, but the quality. He actually makes a difference wherever he surfaces, and over time with experience he's learnt to master those entry points. So rather than just throwing himself at everything, he's now been a little more selective and, as a consequence, possibly having a greater impact."
Deans also admires McCaw's character. "He's a quality bloke," he said. "He's straight up. He is a bloke you can rely on. If you had a need, or you were in a crisis, the first bloke you would be looking for would be Richie."
Also not helping the Wallabies is that McCaw is restless. "He doesn't enjoy not playing. And as he showed last year, he can come straight back after a significant break and immediately play 80 minutes. There's not too many who can do that. It reflects how effectively he prepares.
"He will also bring an absolute hunger and enthusiasm to the [All Blacks] group, because he hates watching. He hates watching average performances. And he certainly doesn't like losing to the Wallabies. It's the last thing he'll want to do. That's what you witnessed last year.
"When you have a bloke who has the mana [presence] that he has, he enters with focus and hunger. That enthusiasm rubs off. That's what we're anticipating we will encounter."