RICHARD KNOWLER 07/06/2011
OPINION: Any mention of Richie McCaw and injuries in World Cup year has, for obvious reasons, the potential to cause rugby hypochondriacs to topple off their stools in panic.
That McCaw is still being plagued by the stress fracture in his foot is hardly bright news; it has been determined that discomfort in the area where a screw was inserted into the fifth metatarsal bone in February will rule him out of the Crusaders' remaining two regular season Super matches.
While the revelation is tough news for Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder to consume, it is still unlikely frustrated All Blacks coach Graham Henry will have spent the last week screeching to the heavens like Edith Piaf jamming her nose in a liquor cabinet's spring door. Well, not yet anyway.
The good news for Henry is that McCaw still has plenty of time on his side: the All Blacks do not meet Tonga in their opening World Cup match in Auckland until September 9. That's three months away.
While there is a match against Fiji in Dunedin to honour next month and a truncated Tri-Nations, involving just four tests for the All Blacks that could feature understrength teams, Henry can afford to rest his captain if there is any indication his troublesome foot is bothering him again.
No doubt he will want to road-test his skipper before the World Cup, but McCaw has shown that following injury layoffs he can perform at optimum level and his 30-year-old legs and lungs can go the distance for 80 minutes.
Even during the World Cup campaign the All Blacks coaches need to risk him only in the playoffs, with just the pool match against France on September 24 a potential landmine.
The reality is that anyone who predicts Tonga, Japan or Canada will create a boilover against the New Zealanders is in serious danger of being seduced by a sharp bookie who will stare dreamily into their eyes, offer them ridiculous odds and fleece them for every shekel they have.
The quarterfinals will be staged on October 8-9. That's four months away.
Given that it is a reasonable assumption the All Blacks will qualify, their opponent for the sudden-death match at Eden Park will be either Argentina or Scotland.
Or England, probably, if they finish runner-up in their pool. Injections could also offer a source of relief for McCaw if his foot is still tender during these matches.
There are alternatives for the No7 jersey in Matt Todd, Adam Thomson and Daniel Braid (if he can overcome a chronic neck complaint), but none can be expected to provide the leadership, power and nous of McCaw.
McCaw should be given every chance to recover from any injuries that threaten to derail his World Cup aspirations, even if it means playing few or none of the crucial playoff matches. It would be far from ideal and it would be a gamble. But it would be one worth taking.
- The Press