Chris Rattue: McCaw's return is the stuff of legends

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The wrecking ball is set for Eden Park but Graham Henry avoided a similar fate against Robbie Deans' wobbly Wallabies. The coaches' box may be condemned, however the central figure in it looked anything but after the storming victory.

Even the ardent critics of Henry's regime, those of us who believe his selection policies have been foolish in the past 18 months, can happily allow the All Black coach this jubilation.

For all its glories, the job is one of constant pressure and no one has ever suggested that Henry has not attempted to do his very best. What the veteran and well-travelled coach has shown is that there is life in the old dog yet - a spark that wasn't all that evident until Saturday night.

The All Black fervour stood out, suggesting that Henry still has the hearts and minds of the players.

One man makes an enormous difference to this team and with Richie McCaw in the line-up, these All Blacks can actually play to the images of tradition which the spin doctors prescribe for the public. The legend of McCaw simply grows and when his career is chronicled, this tigerish and stabilising performance after a mid-length injury break may be seen as a pivotal one in All Black history.

Had the All Blacks capitulated again, they faced turmoil. Without McCaw though, this side is just as likely to turn back into a rabble as they did in Sydney. As it is, they have tough away assignments ahead, but those encounters don't look nearly as daunting any more.

Where does Henry go from here? He has stumbled on a number one line-up that demands to be picked again, one which will finally render his scatter-gun selection techniques redundant.

Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen have spent the first part of 2008 still trying to prove rotation works, almost as if they want to give retrospective validity to their failed World Cup campaign.

But for injury, halfback Jimmy Cowan may not have started on Saturday night, but he provided an X-factor in conditions that suited him which the delivery boy Andy Ellis never has. This is not to say that Cowan will climb to the heights that, say, Justin Marshall did in his prime. But he has the size, and looks closer to the part.

Mils Muliaina was among the All Blacks' best at his accustomed position of fullback, having been tagged for the wing during the week. The centre experiments just have to end, now that Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith have shown what they are capable of, even given that Smith failed in defence for Australia's try.

The front row and locks sort themselves out, but what Saturday night showed was how the previous experimentations with the loose forwards have been such failures.

Returned to his rightful No 8 spot, the workaholic Rodney So'oialo was back to his best, making a load of tackles and treading with brutish delicacy along the fine line between the legal and illegal removal of annoying opponents. Most importantly, Henry will have been reminded that a specialist No 8 with a host of test experience finds it relatively easy to deliver scrum ball to the halfback.

One player who looked out of kilter was Richard Kahui, and little wonder. He is a centre playing on the wing. Anthony Tuitavake, who must wonder if he is in the long-term plans or not, looked similarly confused.

Sonny Bill Williams was a hard act to beat during the week but the Henry/Smith press conference came close as they put in early guilty pleas against charges they had trumped up. By highlighting their inexperience in coaching under the new rugby laws, they admitted to a lesser charge for which they could mount a reasonable defence, and thus avoided dealing with the real issues of Sydney for which they were genuinely culpable.

The All Blacks weren't beaten by new rules in Sydney. They were brought down by a failure to adhere to old basics. A side of confused selections and substitutions which did not hang on to the ball, challenge enough at the breakdown or even deliver dominant scrum possession were undone by an average Aussie outfit specked with a couple of great players and major weak points.

I don't believe that even the toughest Henry critics have ever labelled him as a poor coach. The issue has been selection, which is a massive part of the job.

The All Blacks brought back great reminders of times past on Saturday night, swarming into the match and hardly ever taking their foot off the throat. Keep faith with this line-up, and Henry will have his best chance of making it even better.

* * *

What a dilemma for Warriors coach Ivan Cleary. He really has to rush Wade McKinnon back following a shock loss to South Sydney, but it will be a tough call on Lance Hohaia.

The lack of ruthless skill under pressure hurt the Auckland side on Saturday night.

Sonny Fai and Evarn Tuimavave failed to grab essential try-scoring opportunities against the Rabbitohs. Tuimavave's was a heartbreaker near the end, after a superlative bust and one-handed pass from Sam Rapira.

In the final wash-up, you would expect a side that had suffered two defeats against battling Souths to miss the top eight.

Fullback McKinnon will be painted as a potential saviour, but Cleary will have to drop or shift Hohaia to make way for him.

Hohaia won't go down as a great fullback and he lacks the sheer brilliance of the best. But he is a tricky unit and has often done a terrific job this year. He scored two of the Warriors' tries and played a big part in the other and the little utility has given the side a spark while McKinnon's fireworks have been sidelined.

- NZ Herald

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