MARC HINTON IS BRISBANE 26/08/2011
There are some who believe it's time Mils Muliaina made way for the new breed of fullback in the form of Israel Dagg. But it's fair to say the All Blacks captain doesn't share that sentiment.
Richie McCaw today offered his 31-year-old No 15 - now under immense pressure from the youthfully exuberant Dagg - an emphatic endorsement on the eve of the Tri-Nations deciding test against the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium.
Muliaina got the nod ahead of Dagg for this final hitout ahead of the World Cup, raising an eyebrow or two back in New Zealand after Dagg's impressive return to test rugby last week in Port Elizabeth when he was a rose among a thorny All Black performance.
But as McCaw and Muliaina stride side by side towards a magical milestone - the century of test caps - the All Blacks captain can't quite understand why anyone would choose now to question the credentials of a player who has seldom performed below par in his 97 international appearances..
"He's a champion." said McCaw as he spoke to the media at the traditional Captain's Run at the match venue. " That's why he's played 97 tests. That experience, the way he's played over the years -- and he hasn't played badly this year at all - I'm sure he'll go out and have a blinder. He doesn't very often have a bad one."
Muliaina has conceded he's feeling the heat a little, and that it's coming from more than one direction - Isaia Toeava is also a more than capable fullback, while Cory Jane has form there too.
But McCaw believes that inkling of a challenge can only mean good things for the All Blacks.
"If I know Mils it will bring the best out in him. When the other guys are playing well you've got to rely on your experience. He's a bloody good player himself, and he'll know he's just got to go out and do his job.
"It's great we've got guys playing some good rugby, and I'm sure the old fella will do the job well."
McCaw also admitted that it would be a "special" moment if they're both able to become the first All Blacks to reach 100 caps together during the World Cup.
"Mils has been a big part of this team for a long time. He's a man especially as captain you rely on for advice and he has a lot to do with running the team. IT would be nice to do it together but we'll worry about that after tomorrow."
Speaking of tomorrow, McCaw said he was expecting a ferocious sort of challenge from the Australians on a ground that has be come somewhat of a rugby stronghold of late.
The All Blacks have won all three of their previous tests at Suncorp (1996, 2006 and '08), and haven't lost in Brisbane since 1992. Yet the Wallabies have a great record there against all other foes and this year the Crusaders and Blues both came up short there in Super Rugby time against the Reds.
"I really enjoy playing here, results aside," he said. "It's a great atmosphere to play in, and is usually pretty good weather. It will be tough -- teams have found that this year and I'm sure for the test it will be the same.
"After last time (in Auckland) they'll be looking to up the physical intensity," added the New Zealand skipper. "They certainly did that against the Africans over there, and we've got to expect that. We've got to make sure we bring the same sort of intensity.
"Perhaps we were a little bit off last week as well, especially at breakdown time where perhaps we lost that battle slightly. It's tough to get you game going if that's the case.
"The key will be as always making the most of your opportunities. In the first test that's what we did, we got ahead and we in control of the game.. Last week we didn't and it becomes a tough old match when that happens."
McCaw said preparations hadn't been too affected by the large group making the trip from South Africa, and a swag of fresh bodies from New Zealand had helped to lift the intensity levels.
He also agreed with coach Graham Henry's sentiments that tomorrow night offered nothing in the way of World Cup relevance.
"For us it's doing the job for the Tri-Nations trophy. Certainly going forward to the next few weeks it gives you a bit of confidence but what the teams do tomorrow night, I think in a couple of months time things will be totally different."
McCaw hadn't heard about Will Genia's head knocks this week and said if the halfback played he would be fine. He was expecting a pretty intense display from Rocky Elsom in the loose after losing the captaincy and he said the All Blacks were ready if the forecast rain fell.
This will be the final time the Tri-Nations trophy is played for, with Argentina joining an expanded Four-Nations next year. The skip liked the symbolism of ending it how they started in 1996 - lifting that gleaming trophy.