Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Rising to McCaw less challenge critical

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The last great hurdle for this All Black side is to learn how to win without Richie McCaw. And that, in essence, is what tonight is all about.

The All Blacks have learned how to get by, even play pretty well without Daniel Carter, but it is a different matter without McCaw.

The great man is so rarely injured that the All Blacks have played only 18 tests without him as captain since 2006. That list includes two games versus Canada, two against Italy, one each against Portugal, Romania and Scotland. In terms of serious encounters against top-rated opposition, McCaw has missed only five tests - two Tri Nations fixtures in 2008, the first two tests against France in 2009 and the Tri Nations clash with South Africa in 2011.

The All Blacks lost four of those five games and while they came through the recent series with the French well enough while McCaw was on sabbatical, there is no level of comfort they can win without their leader.

Tonight, then, is huge in terms of the longer-term development of this side. They won't face a stiffer examination this year: at least when they go to South Africa, they won't have to carry the expectation that comes with being on their own soil.

Mentally, they will take a huge step if they can face the onslaught and survive. The Boks won't be subtle or half-cocked. They will shut down the All Blacks' space and require the home side to think, to adapt, to dig deep and be courageous.

The pressure will be intolerable at times, the threat of Morne Steyn's boot never far and all the time this green wave will refuse to stop surging. In similar games in the past any hint of uncertainty and everyone would look to McCaw.

It was the calmness and composure of McCaw that settled the side in the final 15 minutes of the World Cup final. It was McCaw's freakish effort in Dunedin last year that inspired his side past the Boks and it was McCaw who scored the penultimate try late in Soweto three years ago that paved the way for the most dramatic victory two minutes later.

"It's important [for our development]," says Liam Messam about winning tonight. "He is our skipper, our leader, we have to make sure that everyone can connect and come together. We need to really focus on gaining that platform from the tight five because every game is won up front. If they can win the battle, it will flow down."

The bigger picture is just as relevant. Under coach Steve Hansen the All Blacks are trying to reduce their reliance on ageing individuals.

They know how much experience and leadership they have tied up in their veterans and they don't want to be so vulnerable given the higher risk of older players to injury and form slumps.

Even McCaw has to be considered a risk of not making it to 2015 and the All Blacks can't get to England in two years fearing for what will happen if the skipper can't, for whatever reason, make it on to the field.

That process of building belief and confidence in the rest of the leadership team begins for real tonight. The series against France was a dry-run of sorts - this is different. This is the sort of game everyone may look back on further down the track and pinpoint as critical in the evolution of the All Blacks.

On the web

Go to nzherald.co.nz tonight for live test blog. Read all the analysis from New Zealand's leading rugby writers online and in tomorrow's Herald on Sunday.

- NZ Herald

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

Read more by Gregor Paul

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