Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Still in shadow of McCaw

Richie McCaw. Photo / Getty Images
Richie McCaw. Photo / Getty Images

We are halfway through Super Rugby and the country is yet to see a commanding campaign from any New Zealand openside flanker.

Promising first fives are emerging almost everywhere to quell fears there is no one capable of backing-up Daniel Carter. But the picture is not so clear at openside, where the absence of Richie McCaw has been keenly felt.

The stage has been set for someone to steal the show: for a high impact No 7 to stake a claim as the rightful heir to McCaw's throne but no one has done that to date.

There have been fleeting moments from some; John Hardie was full of running before injury crocked him. Karl Lowe has been industrious and aggressive in the last few weeks and Tanerau Latimer is an athletic link.

The two youngsters pushing hardest last year, Matt Todd and Luke Braid, haven't fizzed yet. Crusader Todd had his best game of the season against the Stormers, making 21 tackles and carrying strongly, but his progress is harder to predict with McCaw's return. Braid has been hampered by his harsh suspension and a desire by the Blues to use him at blindside.

It's possible, probable even, that by the end of the season, the outstanding openside other than McCaw will be Englishman James Haskell at the Highlanders.

That should be a concern, as openside has been New Zealand's undisputed 'thing'.

Not only have there been legends at No 7 such as Waka Nathan, Ian Kirkpatrick, Graham Mourie, Josh Kronfeld, Michael Jones and McCaw, there has historically been a second tier of talent easily good enough to play in tests.

Other international sides could only imagine the riches at openside when men such as Duane Monkley and Josh Blackie couldn't win a single test cap. The British Lions got some insight into the depth of talent here in 2005 when they encountered Nili Latu in their opening game, then Chris Masoe, Marty Holah, Ben Herring and Blackie in consecutive weeks before having to face the daddy of them all, McCaw.

It was no wonder that on his return to Wales, Lions flanker Martyn Williams revealed: "I learned more about playing openside flanker during those weeks in New Zealand than I had in the previous 10 years playing everywhere else.

"What happened on the tour opened my eyes and opened them wide. I'm grateful for the experience. For a player in my position, it was obviously going to be a demanding tour. Everywhere you go in New Zealand, the openside flanker is king. The fourth or fifth-choice No 7 over there would walk into most sides here."

That's not the case now and hasn't been for some time. Holah was the last genuine test-class specialist back-up to McCaw.

Chris Masoe was almost there but, since he departed for France in 2008, a string of players have been asked to cover for McCaw without ever looking up to it. Latimer and Daniel Braid have been the specialists tried and Adam Thomson, Rodney So'oialo and Victor Vito converted from other loose forward berths.

It's apparent that opensides are no longer the kings of the New Zealand game. It has been four years since there was a second genuine test-class openside in New Zealand. There's reason to believe Todd is heading towards that status and perhaps Braid jnr isn't far behind anjd the Chiefs' Sam Cane is again showing youthful promise - but there isn't a queue of No 7s banging down the door.

The ever-changing tactical landscape may be the driving factor behind the demise of the New Zealand openside. It's no longer clear what type of player is in demand in the No 7 jersey. Is it out-and-out fetchers? Or big ball carriers? Or a hybrid?

The confusion began following the introduction of the ELVs in 2008 - which effectively turned all three loose forwards into opensides due to the increased pace.

Then in 2009, rugby became a game of kick and chase and even McCaw struggled to understand his role.

As All Black coach Graham Henry said at the end of that year of his captain: "When it turns into a game of tennis, he's the net. He can't play when he's the net. He can only play when he's the ball. The game has changed to the extent he doesn't get on the ball as much as he used to. That's a frustration."

Things moved again in 2010 and 2011 into a pass-and-run game and McCaw was the only openside who evolved into a ball-carrying, big-tackling presence as required.

The game has changed already this season - as in the Crusaders clash with the Stormers, where there were 82 kicks.

"Trends are emerging," said Crusaders halfback Andy Ellis. "We were maybe a bit slow to pick up on that but you can't really play rugby in your own half at the moment. It's too risky."

No doubt McCaw will effortlessly become whatever he needs to become to have the desired impact. But he can't go on forever and 2012 has to be the year someone emerges as a potential successor.

- Herald on Sunday

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