Jun 12, 2010
A decade on from his debut against Ireland, All Black skipper Richie McCaw leads his team tonight in what doubles as the starting gates towards the World Cup.
That tournament is next year but the All Blacks have just 18 tests left before they begin their quest for a second global crown on home soil.
They are fine-tuning their resources, narrowing their view on players, styles and concepts for that tournament.
McCaw is at the apex of those strategies, the openside flanker who has been captain in 44 tests. He and Daniel Carter are the global superstars who provide the side with so much belief. The skipper feels comfortable with his side and himself.
"I've got more used to being captain and this year I feel more at ease because of the things I have picked up and understood along the way," he said. "It still does not mean it is easy but you know what you are in for.
"I have weighed up what I have to do off the field as well as on the field and got a better balance there. You have to make sure the team is right but you cannot forget about yourself."
In New Plymouth tonight, McCaw will lead out three debut All Blacks with another trio waiting for their turn from the benches.
"I was pretty green really," McCaw recalled of his 2001 debut at Lansdowne Rd. "I had only played a dozen first class games so I was boggin myself. There were experienced guys though like Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga, Andrew Mehrtens and Anton Oliver who helped me get through it. Once you get through the first one you realise it wasn't hugely different.
"It is a step up but you have to leave them to find their own way but stress they do not have the same time and space they get in lower levels of rugby. But you find everyone does their job more often at test level, they are all good players."
Tonight will be about switching into test match mentality, forgetting the froth of Super 14 and making strong decisions, having low error rates and playing to the conditions.
Those are likely to encourage a kicking and territorial game as rain is forecast for Taranaki. Ireland, especially with Ronan O'Gara at five-eighths, will use those tactics to test the nerves of new fullback Israel Dagg and reclaimed wing Joe Rokocoko.
In midfield, Benson Stanley should be asked to control possession and dictate the tempo to set up phaseplays for his teammates. If he can force Irish skipper Brian O'Driscoll into defensive work, that will be a key.
All these sort of theories depend on the tight five being in sync with similar unity at the lineouts. In the past, that has not always been the case. Retreaded senior hooker Keven Mealamu has to connect with his targets and the calls have to be smart and fast to suit the weather.
The All Black scrum has to be a weapon but a sloshy turf may assist Irish claims and test the patience and accuracy of referee Wayne Barnes.
He, like Ireland, has had minimal experience of the law tweaks at the breakdown and scrum, and those two areas may be the most inspected in awkward conditions.
The All Blacks have moved on from their last World Cup grievances against Barnes but McCaw and his mates must put the heat on him to have a match played to their style.
This is a game to set some standards. The All Blacks have been in camp for 10 days, they have been patient with their buildup and myriad of commercial obligations.
They have settled on their playbooks but are not planning on using too much of that detail. They want to get New Plymouth 101 sorted with the least mess, lots of basic substance with accurate vigour.
McCaw will be reinforcing those sporting commandments.
"There are guys in this team who have been round for a while because they do not want to let their standards drop," he said.
"You never want to give anyone any excuse to think you should not be here or have your mates doubting you. It drives me to think that your mates will think you will turn up every time, that is what I think about.
You can talk about numbers but you are only as good as your last game and that is reality. I always want to improve or maintain my standards."
In any post-match reflections, McCaw said he got the greatest satisfaction thinking he had done his bit for the team. At this stage of his career he wanted to teach his teammates, invest his knowledge in their futures. But he was also a follow-me kind of leader and hoped they would be in unison tonight.
By Wynne Gray
Carter ready to fire, says McCaw