McCaw tipped to captain side if fit

By Mark Geenty

EDINBURGH - The All Blacks are optimistic star flanker Richie McCaw will prove his fitness for the Grand Slam clincher on Sunday after Tony Woodcock and Aaron Mauger's tours ended.

The battered and bruised All Blacks arrived in Edinburgh yesterday without prop Woodcock, who played in yesterday's 23-19 win over England in London but will return home immediately for a family medical emergency.

Second five-eighths Mauger, who was forced off the field late in Sunday's test, has a shoulder injury which has a three-to-six-week recovery period.

Neither were likely starters anyway in what will largely be a second XV to play Scotland at Murrayfield as the All Blacks chase only their second Grand Slam from seven attempts spread over 100 years.

McCaw watched the test against England from the Twickenham stands after ruling himself out the day before the match after suffering a head knock a week earlier against Ireland.

It was the third time in the past 18 months that McCaw has suffered after-effects from a head injury, but assistant coach Steve Hansen was upbeat yesterday.

"Richie's working to a plan and he should know by Tuesday how he's doing," Hansen said.

"I'm pretty confident. He went for a good run today and was feeling pretty good. He just needs to get through a contact session and get some confidence for himself."

Hansen said Woodcock and Mauger were the only confirmed unavailabilities for Sunday, with Anton Oliver and James Ryan expected to be fit.

McCaw has a good chance of captaining the All Blacks for a third time if passed fit, with Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith a likely midfield pairing and regular skipper Tana Umaga probably sitting out the match.

Hansen and fellow selectors Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Sir Brian Lochore will name their team tomorrow.

Hansen said nothing had changed from the pre-tour philosophy of developing a core of 30 players for the 2007 World Cup.

"The prime objective for this tour was to try and get two people in every position. That doesn't change because we've got an opportunity of doing something that's only been done once in 100 years."

That could signal an entirely new starting XV this week, as they did between the Wales and Ireland tests.

New Zealand's opponents struggled to put away Samoa 18-11 at Murrayfield yesterday.

Hansen and Smith attended the match with their former Crusaders captain Todd Blackadder, coach of Heineken Cup side Edinburgh Gunners, who have 13 players in the Scotland squad.

Hansen said they were not expecting Blackadder to front with inside information on the Scotland players, given he was in the "delicate" situation of having a foot in both camps.

Hansen felt he had a good knowledge of the major Scotland players from his time with Wales between 2002-04.

Yesterday's result summed up Scotland's recent fortunes, along with a crowd of just over 14,000.

They won just one of their five matches in this year's Six Nations, over Italy, but Hansen still saw some aspects of their game as a threat.

"They've got one of the best defensive lineouts in international rugby. They play a nice wide game, they want to use the ball and they've got a couple of very good wingers, the two Lamont brothers - both very fast, big and strong."

THE QUEST

*Beat Wales 41-3
*Beat Ireland 45-7
*Beat England 23-19
*v Scotland, Murrayfield, Sunday

- NZPA

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