The ever-present Kiwi captain will form the backbone of a much changed All Blacks side, reports Iain Morrison.
THERE is always a good-sized media contingent following the All Blacks and according to several of their experts the Kiwis are fielding something like half their starting XV this afternoon. If things go horribly wrong, coach Steve Hansen has parked several insurance policies on his bench in the formidable shape of Tony Woodcock (92 caps), Ali Williams (75) and Ma’a Nonu (73).
As well as giving some fringe players a run, Hansen is also mixing and matching – he may just have drawn the backs out of a hat. The inside centre Tamati Ellison is a specialist No.13 while his outside centre Ben Smith prefers full-back or, failing that, a spot on the wing. Victor Vito has played almost all his Test rugby at blindside flanker but he appears at No.8 today while blindside Adam Thompson has played his recent rugby at openside.
At least one man is unlikely to get pushed or pulled out of position.
When asked how he selected this team, Hansen said that the first thing he did was ensure that it had leaders and sure enough the capo di tutti capi Richie McCaw competes in his 114th Test match this afternoon.
It is a measure of the success of New Zealand’s rugby team that McCaw has played 113 Test matches to date and won 100 of them. It’s a phenomenal record and not one that will be broken any time soon.
Bizarrely, that draw against the Wallabies last time out was the first and only time that McCaw has tied a Test match.
Some victories are harder earned than others. Two years ago the Scots failed to produce much in the way of opposition as Sonny Boy Williams inspired the men in black to three tries inside the first quarter.
The match ended in a 49-3 humiliation for Andy Robinson’s side, although they recovered much of their pride with a battling win the very next weekend against the Springboks. McCaw ruffled a few feathers in his recent autobiography when he voiced his dismay that the All Blacks’ last outing at Murrayfield was less a pitched battle and more a mopping up operation.
“I didn’t mean it as a dig at the Scots,” McCaw said yesterday at an AIG-sponsored brunch with the press.
“Although I realise now that it probably came across like that. We got on a roll early and the game quickly went our way, and I was comparing it to my first Test here in 2001 which was a real dogfight for 70 minutes and then it just went our way towards the end. And that’s what I came to expect in games with Scotland.
“But we did play bloody well in 2010, and I think in that first quarter it would have been tough for anyone with the way we got things clicking.
“I have a lot of respect for Scotland. My family come from here, as everyone knows, I like the heritage, the bagpipes and the history. But it was just a feeling I had after the game, where I just felt we’d lost that edge we had with Scotland in that Test match, which was a little disappointing.
“But we need Scotland being competitive on the world stage. This is a passionate country, and while I am not changing the words I wrote it’s got to be taken in the context of that game.”
If he didn’t have enough incentive already, the fact that today is Armistice Day lends an added level of emotion to the occasion for the Kiwi skipper.
His paternal grandfather, Jim McCaw, was a pilot during the Second World War and spent the final year of it shooting down the doodlebugs that were causing havoc to London and the south-east. He died in 1996 but he passed on his love of flying because Richie is keen pilot as well as being an amateur historian.
“My grandfather flew during the Second World War,” recalls McCaw. “His father, Alexander, fought at the Somme during the First World War and got wounded, and had a bit of shrapnel in the neck, but he came back.”
It was his father, also Alexander, that came to New Zealand from Scotland.
“My grandfather enjoyed telling stories and I don’t know if he made light of things, but he always put a positive spin on them, and probably a bit of exaggerating now and again, but I was really intrigued. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and talked of once being left with 20 seconds of ammo left and shooting down four planes in two hours, chasing them around.
“There is actually footage still used now of doodlebugs getting shot, that came from his plane when he got in nice and close and was shooting, and there was this big bang. He used to talk about his arms getting singed by that. For a kid these are amazing stories.
“So, Armistice Day is pretty significant when you think about it, and I try to get some of that across to the boys. I know that it will go over some of their heads, but some of them will take it in and it will mean something, especially when we talk about putting your body on the line for New Zealand, and recognising that what we’re being asked to do is a long way from what a lot of people did before us.”
It’s a balanced perspective when the international sporting arena is not known for balance or perspective.