MARK REASON 19/09/2012
OPINION: The time has come for Sir Richie to accept his knighthood. McCaw has filled in so many holes in the All Blacks victories over Argentina and South Africa, it is a wonder he hasn't started kicking goals as well. It has been a truly noble effort.
But you do wonder just how long the old dog can keep this up. Against the Boks, McCaw was chief cover defender, strike runner, kick chaser, tackler, slower of ball and clearer-outer.
By the end, he looked like he had been a fight with a wood splitter. The man will be 32 in December. There is only so much the body can take.
McCaw's go-to-line is that he could not accept a knighthood because of all the stick he would get from Ali Williams.
He can't be serious. Williams may have a smidgen of wit, but Comical Ali is never the first in line to throw himself on the barbed wire. McCaw is always the first man over the top, whether the ref likes it or not.
However, there is just a touch of desperation about all of this. Wash my mouth out but, just as David Pocock has to cover up for the shortcomings of Australia's forwards, so McCaw (and to some extent Kieran Read) is now having to do for the growing weaknesses of New Zealand's pack.
The All Blacks badly need an enforcer. Over the previous few seasons, Jerome Kaino had been the hitman and Brad Thorn had been the hard man. That allowed McCaw to get on with all his other jobs.
Both Thorn and Kaino were excellent at clearing out bodies ahead of the ball carrier.
Thorn also powered the scrummage, packing down on the tighthead side, while Kaino provided the massive defensive tackles that can change a match's momentum.
But at the moment the All Black pack is unable to stand up for itself. Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock look like men who put in one big final effort at the World Cup and are now out on their feet.
Owen Franks is the kid who no longer has Thorn to look after him. Luke Romano is trying heroically to be Brad Thorn, but you can't just pretend yourself into being Martin Johnson, Bakkies Botha or Colin Meads. Either the iron is in your soul or it is not.
And as to who plays No 5 and No 6, well the coaches can't quite make up their minds. Victor Vito and Brodie Retallick were dropped for the previous match because of their lack of physical presence against the Pumas. Liam Messam and Sam Whitelock are both much better at clearing out rucks and mauls, something that is becoming a real issue for the All Blacks.
If you look back at the three previous World Cup-winning teams, each one had a lock and a flanker who were superb at cleaning out ahead of the ball carrier - Johnson and Richard Hill for England, Botha and Juan Smith for South Africa and Thorn and Kaino for New Zealand.
In the pre-dawn and early light of professionalism, teams such as Australia could get away without such efficient cleaners. But as teams became increasingly coached to cheat in slowing down ball, the removal man became one of the most important players in the game.
It is ironic that Graham Henry correctly criticised England ahead of this year's Six Nations for their failure to clean out. He wrote: “England has a backline to get excited about, but they will never fulfil their potential unless the team can win quick ball.
“This needs a total change of policy for the Six Nations. England must go to Murrayfield and stick it to the opposition. They have to smash the Scottish forwards past the ball instead of conservatively stopping at the tackled player in order to secure possession.
“We want quick ball in New Zealand and so we concentrate on dominating the space beyond the ball carrier. We want our supporting players to get under the opposition and to move them backwards.
The English teams are paranoid that an opponent might steal the ball and so everyone jams on the brakes and seals off possession.”
Henry was spot on, but that is exactly what the All Blacks are now also becoming guilty of. Their best cleaner-out by far is McCaw, but the team is not committing numbers ahead of the ball as they did at the World Cup. It is easy for the opposition to slow down their possession.
They are even more timid at the breakdown in defence. The upside is that New Zealand are hard to break down because of all the numbers in the defensive line, but nor are they feasting on turnover ball as in the past.
The Chiefs beat the Crusaders in this year's Super Rugby by bullying the bully. South Africa, with one of the weakest front fives in that nation's brutal history, did the same to the All Blacks on Saturday.
Only appalling goal kicking, a blown try and some weird refereeing in the final 10 minutes saved New Zealand from a beating, at least on the scoreboard.
In the previous couple of weeks, the All Blacks scrum has been smashed on its own line. The pack has been annihilated in the rolling maul off lineouts and used all manner of illegal methods to get out of it. The pack has been minced in the tackle and even failed to defend its own line when hooker and blindside flanker were up against a grey, balding 35-year-old.
Ice baths can't keep Sir Richie going forever. The rest of this New Zealand pack needs to front up or it will be a hard few weeks on the road.
- © Fairfax NZ News