All Black captain Richie McCaw has played down his much talked about foot injury on the eve of tomorrow's Rugby World Cup quarter-final clash against Argentina.
New Zealand rugby fans would have been on edge yesterday after coach Graham Henry said the 100 test veteran has a "big mental challenge" in dealing with the injury which has plagued his season since being diagnosed with a stress fracture in February.
McCaw missed the opening two months of the Super 15 season following surgery on his right foot. He then sat out the All Blacks' final pool match against Canada to rest the injury and has been skipping the more physical parts of training runs.
However he told media today that he is good to go for the All Blacks' knockout clash against the Pumas at Eden Park on Sunday night and said he was not taking painkillers.
Told New Zealanders were anxious about his fitness, he chuckled.
"Too much has been made of that, (the pain) comes and goes," he said at today's captain's run.
"It's just a niggle, I'm not running around in excruciating pain. I've dealt with niggles for over 10 years, and everyone's getting a bit too excited about it."
McCaw will lead onto Eden Park the most experienced All Blacks side ever, and better armed than in 2007. Soft pool games back then didn't prepare them for the quarter-finals and the pressure applied by France. This time, the All Blacks have been humbled by Tonga in the second half of their opening match, and conceded two second-half tries to France.
At least New Zealand has been playing better than Argentina, which enjoyed an excellent first half in the narrow loss to England and a full 80-minute rebound against Romania. Further wins over Scotland and Georgia were no better than workmanlike, which is why the Pumas are under pressure to drastically improve their effort or face a heavy defeat.
It has to start up front, their undoubted strength. The Pumas have mastered scrummaging since the late 1960s, when coach Catamarca Ocampo invented the bajadita, the simultaneous eight-man push. Argentina hopes to use its scrum in attack and defense, not just to set up plays but also produce penalties.
"If we can dominate and create penalties it could become a great psychological weapon," said reserve prop Marcos Ayerza.
The Pumas are also out to slow down ruck ball, to give their defense time to regroup and hinder the New Zealand attack which thrives on speed.
Argentina's scrambling defense has also impressed, enough for New Zealand coach Graham Henry to remark, "It looks like space and all of a sudden it's closed.''
The Pumas have to marry all of this, Ayerza said, with hunger, desperation, and passion.
Will it be enough?
The All Blacks say they have heeded the lesson from four years ago not to look beyond what's in front of them, and what's in front of them has their full respect.
Argentina's "game suits knockout competition," New Zealand backup lock Ali Williams said. "If we take them lightly, then she'll be a quiet old Monday for us."
It has been two years since any pack outmuscled the All Blacks, and that required some dark deeds by Martin Castrogiovanni in a game Italy still lost.
As much as the Pumas pride themselves on their pack, so does New Zealand. Only the All Blacks and South Africa have not conceded a tighthead yet. And even if there is a stalemate in the forwards' confrontation, the opposing backs are mismatched. Just as the All Blacks marked McCaw's 100th test in style two weeks ago, they are keen to ensure fullback Mils Muliaina will have his own celebration on Sunday for becoming the second All Black to a century of caps.
"He's been a champion for the All Blacks for a long time," McCaw said. "I saw him earlier and he said he just wants to go out and perform well and do the job. He doesn't feel any different and I can sort of understand that. But from our point of view, we want to make a memorable night for him."
For New Zealand, the plans are in place, the homework's done, and the boxes are ticked.
- HERALD ONLINE/AP