By TONY SMITH - The Press
Sept 18th, 2010
OPINION: The Hong Kong test is the ideal opportunity to test one last unproven rugby theory – can the All Blacks beat a top-tier rugby nation without aces Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
Carter has targeted the October 30 international against the Wallabies in the Chinese city as his comeback date after ankle surgery.
But there shouldn't be any hurry to rushing him back.
McCaw has had a standout season – again. The inspirational captain is a major reason why the All Blacks were unbeaten through the Tri-Nations series which is, despite the denials of the old buffers of the IRB, a tougher competition than a World Cup.
Even the most revisionist of rugby followers now seem convinced McCaw is our greatest All Black ever. Surely, the skipper deserves a bit of a breather on the end-of-season tour?
The All Blacks coaches have won big brownie points in rugby clubrooms and bars around the land by abandoning their rotation policy and playing their top XV every week. They will be tempted to do the same on tour. Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith have all coached in Britain. They like nothing more than notching up another grand slam series triumph.
The All Blacks have a royal show of winning every test in a season for the first time since Grizz Wyllie's gang in 1989. That's quite a feat in the modern rugby world given New Zealand now plays Australia and South Africa up to seven times a season.
Coaches are competitive coves. They love collective goal milestones. But the World Cup is looming and it must remain the most important focus. The All Blacks must make sure all bases are covered for 2011.
The All Blacks have only rarely named a starting lineup without either McCaw or Carter in it. They did it twice last year, home and away, against Italy and were forced into it against France.
They had the luxury of doing so three times at the 2007 World Cup against minnows Romania and Portugal and a struggling Scotland. They were also able to issue them leave passes in the third test against the British and Irish Lions in 2005 with the series already won.
Heaven forbid, no-one in Canterbury wants to contemplate a second consecutive disaster. But what if Carter and McCaw – Canterbury's two finest All Blacks of all time – both received season-ending injuries in the Super rugby finals? Who would fill their boots?
The All Blacks need backups with as much experience as possible in the test arena. This is the time the three wise men must settle on McCaw's and Carter's World Cup understudies. Yet, both positions are still up for grabs.
Both Carter and McCaw should tour. The All Blacks, who already impress as one of the tighter teams for some time, need to cement a World Cup-type tournament culture. But a case could be made for restricting the premier pair to off-field mentoring tasks or, in Carter's case after his injury layoff, to an impact player role off the bench.
It's simply not possible to find another first five-eighth within cooee of Carter's class.
It's not like the 1980s when Grant Fox and Frano Botica were both around, or the late 1990s-early 2000s when Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer duelled for the job.
But someone has to step up to the plate. Whoever gets the nod, either Aaron Cruden or Colin Slade, they should start in four of the five remaining tests.
Slade, who has had to play on the wing or at fullback at Super 14 level, needs as much time as possible in the No10 jumper, which is why it is disappointing that he's only on the bench for Canterbury against Taranaki.
The All Blacks' openside flanker cupboard isn't exactly bare, though none of McCaw's chasers are as good as Marty Holah in the days when he would have walked into any test team outside Australasia.
Kieran Read may well be the best option as emergency cover. But he had a great year at No8 and the more experience he can get in the most technically testing role in the forward pack, the better.
Maybe it's time for the selectors to decide between Adam Thomson, Tanerau Latimer and George Whitelock, who have had their opportunities before, or renaissance man Daniel Braid who was so impressive in the Super 14 for the Queensland Reds.
This tour is a time for all remaining questions to be answered, including whether Sonny Bill Williams is ready for test duty.
You see, I believe we can now answer in the affirmative to my opening question. Can the All Blacks win without both McCaw and Carter. The leadership's there in the likes of Read, Mils Muliaina, Conrad Smith and Keven Mealamu. The passion burns in blokes like Brad Thorn and Ma'a Nonu.
It's a risk, especially against an Australian side which would have won in Sydney with a decent goal kicker. But it's a gamble which must be taken.