The totem pole has been felled and questions about the All Blacks without injured skipper Richie McCaw will dominate the rest of their Rugby Championship campaign.

His absence will provoke insatiable debate until scrutiny begins on Saturday when the team and probable replacement Sam Cane start their Eden Park battle with the unbeaten Springboks.

The Boks will have been buoyed by their 38-12 victory against the Wallabies and will feel an added lift about taking on a McCaw-free All Blacks. It will not change the oddsbut it will provide a psychological boost.

There is widespread agreement the difference between the best and the rest in rugby sits with their ability to cope with the swirling mental challenges of the sport.


McCaw has that part of the game sussed. He is an athletic warrior whose remarkable engine is primed by an iron will and cool application.

He has led the All Blacks by deed and drive to their premier status in the global ratings.

His 82 tests as All Black captain are gold, deposits invested in his frame since 2004 against Wales as he has stacked up layer on layer of accumulated leadership knowledge and rugby acumen.

As captain, McCaw has had to make just nine losing speeches: four losses to the Springboks, three defeats (and a draw) with the Wallabies, and single losses against France and England.

When McCaw has been injured or rested on his captaincy watch against weaker opponents, the All Blacks have lost four of those 20 tests.

A few years ago it was a juggling act settling on a replacement. Reuben Thorne, Jerry Collins, Rodney So'oialo, Keven Mealamu, Mils Muliaina, Andrew Hore and Kieran Read were used.

Read was in that role for the French series and will resume those duties for the rest of the Rugby Championship. He has led the Crusaders for long periods and with 54 caps brings a similar authority to McCaw.

"There are different types of leaders," McCaw said before the 2011 World Cup triumph.

There were analytical man-managers, inspirational tub thumpers and those who led by example.

"I fall into the final category. I like to plan a campaign, but I know that the team will not follow unless I literally take the lead," he said.

McCaw has also worked out how to delegate team responsibility and use his senior lieutenants before he picks his time to set the direction. He, Read and others have ridden through those scenarios many times and on Saturday the baton will be with those lieutenants.

For many opponents that alters the All Black aura although the Boks have played them often enough not to misinterpret the signals.

A return for Ma'a Nonu, probably Owen Franks and a full appearance from Daniel Carter bring that other side of reality. They and their colleagues will fill the cavity left by McCaw. They understand the stresses of test rugby and will gather round Cane as they did with Tom Taylor when he put under the blowtorch against the Wallabies.

Cane will bring greater pace to the All Blacks and if conditions are dry, a boost to the continuity plan as well. The loose forward combination may be refined even further if the selectors like Cane and Liam Messam's partnership.

The All Blacks had six months to prepare for three June tests without McCaw. They have that detail in their memory banks, now they have a week to get their heads around the same drama.