By MARC HINTON in Marseille - Stuff.co.nz
Richie McCaw has taken such a battering this year that you almost feel sorry for the All Blacks captain heading into a test this Saturday night that has the potential to be as brutal as anything we've seen in 2009.
Maybe even more so. The French have that fire in their eyes. That hunger in their bellies. That belief in their heart. They sense another All Black scalp could be there for the taking. And they’re on their favourite ground, too.
And guess who's going to be right in the firing line at Stade Velodrome from kickoff (8.45am Sunday, NZ time)? Old Captain Fantastic, of course. He knows no other way.
But before you go getting the hanky out and get all teary-eyed over the plight of the awesome Cantab, who will win his 80th test cap this weekend, he reminds you that he's no choir boy himself. That in this business you live by the motto: hit hard, or be hit hard.
"Everyone realises this is a big test," says McCaw. "What happened this year in June puts a bit of an edge to it, and I guess going into the summer break you want to finish off well.
"Last week was pretty physical as well and I think the guys realise that it could even be a step up from that. The fellas who played in June certainly found it physical. But we're pretty used to that this year. Test matches these days are all pretty brutal, and this will be another one."
McCaw is asked the best way to combat that. His answer reveals there is only one way.
"You've got to give it straight back," he says. "You’ve got to meet them with the same sort of physicality… then you've got to play some rugby as well. If you can get on top in that area, and play, you can put them under pressure. It takes away the edge that they have if you do that."
But how on earth is McCaw going to manage his part? The leading role.
He looks ready for a holiday. A long one that doesn’t involve tightly coiled, heavily muscled, manically-minded rugby forwards launching themselves at him with lethal intent.
The All Blacks skipper has had a long, hard season, and he has taken a battering. It’s the price you pay these days for being the best openside flanker in the business.
He looks almost worn out. Almost. He says he, and all his team-mates, know that summer is just around the corner. But they’ve still got to take that curve in the road.
"Everyone’s aware of the challenge. And it’s not as if we’re going home Sunday. We’ve got another week, so it might be that week that’s the hard one. I think the guys all realise it’s a big match and we’re excited about playing it."
The key, says McCaw, will be winning the battle of the gain-line.
"If you do that it makes it a lot easier and harder for the other team to get physical. That was the big area they got on top of us in Dunedin."
But remember this: McCaw wasn’t there in Dunedin. He will be this weekend and for that fact alone the French are going to have a harder time knocking the stuffing out of All Blacks like they did back in June.
For the record McCaw is happy to cover Nos 6 and 8 this week, with the All Blacks electing to have specialist openside Tanerau Latimer on the bench.
But, no, he's not eyeing a permanent move to the back of the scrum any time soon.
"In situations like this I’m quite happy to cover there, and it’s another string to the bow to be able to do that. It gives the selectors an opportunity to use different people.
"But it probably means I’m doing something wrong if someone else has got my spot at 7. I always play my best if I’m playing at 7."
And right now there's no one that quite plays No 7 like that man McCaw. Tired or fresh. Jaded or revived. He knows that all goes out the window on Saturday night when it becomes, once more, survival of the fittest.
"We’ve got some sore bodies, and that's why we needed to make sure we recovered well. But from here on we realise we’re in for a big test match, and it’s one everyone is looking forward to."