TONY SMITH 22/07/2011 The Press
OPINION: They both call Canterbury home, are at the peak of their powers and have led New Zealand to the World Cup finals.
Watching All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw stride around Dunedin's new Forsyth Barr Stadium it was easy to evoke images of All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen holding centre stage at last year's Fifa football World Cup in South Africa.
Nelsen had come back from a knee injury which cut short his premier league season at Blackburn Rovers, to lead unfancied New Zealand to three World Cup draws. They returned home as the only unbeaten team at the tournament and edged the All Blacks to win the Halberg Award as New Zealand team of the year.
Nelsen also earned selection in an international television network's World Cup All Stars team, proving he was world-class with his performance against the Serie A strikers from Italy.
McCaw – who pipped Nelsen for Halberg Sportsman of the Year – achieved superstar status not long after his test debut as a 20-year-old in 2001.
There are plenty of parallels between McCaw and Nelsen, two leaders of men, and thoughtful, intelligent 30-something types.
But there is one subtle difference. Nelsen may mark some of the best strikers in the world week-in and week-out, but McCaw has the more realistic chance of actually winning the World Cup – the only honour to elude him thus far.
However, 2011 has been, by his own admission, a "stop-start" season so far for the 30-year-old, who, like Nelsen in 2010, has had to cope with injury adversity. He broke his foot in pre-season and played only sporadically for the Crusaders before returning for the playoffs.
Understandably, he was not at his best, lacking vital match fitness.
McCaw said at yesterday's captain's run that he couldn't wait to "get stuck in" to tonight's first test.
But the World Cup is, he concedes, "the elephant in the room".
"I think you'd be stupid not to say that's in the back of our minds.
"It would be silly not to acknowledge that, but we've got to make sure we get it right here (Dunedin) first." He says the World Cup "doesn't need to be talked about, to be honest". "It's not mentioned. Everyone realises this squad is only here for the Tri-Nations. Everyone wants to make sure they are involved later in the year, so we want to do it right." McCaw, who tonight plays his 95th test – a record shared with fullback Mils Muliaina – admits to mixed emotions about his last game at Carisbrook.
"To get one more run out here will be great."