15 Aug

Captain Fantastic
by Tracey Nelson
15 Aug 2008

You’ll often hear the words in this day and age that no-one is indispensable, that one man can’t win a game on his own, one man can’t make a difference. Of course, those people probably haven’t seen the All Blacks play without one Richie McCaw.

So come on, hands up those who think the All Blacks are capable of playing as well as they did at Eden Park two weeks ago without Richie McCaw on the field? Seriously. Because despite having a first five with the many skills of Dan Carter, games are still won up front and main battle you must win in the modern game is that of the breakdown.

While McCaw was out injured, the All Blacks struggled to find a replacement at openside. They tried playing left-right flankers, with mixed results (a win and then a close loss to South Africa) before using the specialist Daniel Braid against Australia in Sydney. To give Braid his due he did his job in arriving at the breakdown, but the All Blacks’efforts were hamstrung by simply not having enough players in support of his efforts. Against South Africa in Dunedin a similar scenario had played out, where So’oialo and Thomson were beaten in the loose.

In their attempts to play a fast, wide game in Sydney the All Blacks sacrificed numbers and accuracy for speed and risky offloads. Australia, with loose forwards of the calibre of George Smith and Rocky Elsom, simply nullified that strategy by contesting at the breakdown with more numbers and counter rucking to put the All Blacks on the back foot. It also didn’t help that our lineout had one of those now familiar attack of the staggers, with the Wallabies able to use their kicking game, put the ball into touch and compete on our throw to win the ball back.

Add to that some head-scratching subsitutions, notably that of Sione Lauaki for Braid early on in the second half, and suddenly the All Blacks were fielding what was essentially three No 8s against a very mobile, balanced Aussie loose trio. Smith and Elsom had a field day in the loose, the introduction of Keven Mealamu just further added to the All Blacks’ lineout meltdown, and the entire team had a night of handling errors they’d rather forget.

Fast forward to Auckland. After a bizarre week of admissions from the coaching staff that they had been “out-coached”, that they were “struggling” with the ELVs, that we had tried to play from behind the gain line too often, our kicking game had been poor, and we had run out of puff, the heat was really on. Cue the return of McCaw from injury.

Yes we had a better game plan in Auckland, we kicked for territory for starters and even put the ball into touch instead of trying to play force back without a second kicking option outside Carter. We contested on Australia’s lineouts, something the All Blacks have been much maligned for in the past. And lo and behold, contesting worked as we won 1/3 of Australia’s throws – albeit we had three pods jumping against their two, the Wallabies being short on jumpers minus the injured Elsom. But it wasn’t just winning some of Australia’s lineouts or playing in their half of the field that won the game.

Watching that test match from the stands at Eden Park you were struck time and again by the sheer amount of work that McCaw gets through in a game. It’s not just that turnover he wins, or the tackle he makes. It’s the fact that immediately afterwards he’s there for the next pass, or running in support. At times it seems simply incredible that he can be in so many places, but such is his reading of the game and running lines that it often seems as if there’s two of him on the field. Those fifty-fifty moments where the ball is on the ground or the opposition player is about to make the telling break or pass are the moments where McCaw comes into his own. His workrate both at the breakdown, in suppport and on defence making the tackle are where he stands head and shoulders above the rest.

To play the fast, off-loading style of game the All Blacks excell at, you need front foot ball. This is the difference McCaw makes, he hits the rucks fast and hard to secure our ball at the breakdown. His speed in support of the ball carrier gives the All Blacks the invaluable ability to recycle the ball quickly, denying the opposition the chance to slow it down and reorganise their defence. Take that away and suddenly the All Blacks look half the side as was so well demonstrated in Dunedin and Sydney. This week we have the mouthwatering chance to watch two of the finest flankers in world rugby in the form of McCaw and Schalk Burger go head to head as the All Blacks take on the Springboks in Capetown. The winner of this breakdown battle will go a long way to seeing his side win this all important match in the 2008 TriNations series.

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