Rugby: Not open to any move

Back in black, Richie McCaw. Photo / Getty Images
Back in black, Richie McCaw. Photo / Getty Images

When Richie McCaw returns - and that will be only when he's convinced his troubled foot is ready - it won't be with plans to slip into anything other than a No 7 jersey.

The All Black captain isn't pondering a Michael Jones-style switch to the blindside or reinventing himself as a jack of all trades loose forward. He'll remain an out-and-out specialist openside.

Even playing on one foot, as McCaw did at the World Cup, new All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was certain his captain remained the best openside on the planet.

"He's a hell of a No 7 as he showed during theWorld Cup when he delivered tremendous performances on one foot," says Hansen. "Openside is his rightful position and that is where we intend to play him."

There is clarity to Hansen's thinking that suggests he won't buy into any public debate about his skipper. Since the World Cup, popular opinion has grownstronger that, at 31and with a decade of high impact rugby behind him, McCaw may struggle with the demands of the openside.

There are many who contend that McCaw will no longer be able to produce his imperious form of old; that he's already defied all reasonable expectation by playing so well for as long as he has. Even this great warrior will have to succumb to the physical pounding and extremes he's asked of himself and there are many who feel that time is nigh.

This belief is perhaps fuelled with thoughts in mind of how Michael Jones - the last truly extraordinary All Black openside - reinvented himself as a blindside in his final years. Jones endured two knee reconstructions mid-career and, by his late 20s, was not the same athlete.

But Hansen doesn't see many parallels between Jones and McCaw beyond their greatness.

"Michael was a case on his own," says Hansen. "His game was built on his pace, his athleticism and his incredible power. He lost some of that towards the end of his career due to injury and there were also other players, notably Josh Kronfeld, coming through at that time. Jones wasn't brilliant over the ball-I don't mean he wasn't good at it, just that wasn't really his game.

"Richie is not in the same mould as Jones and I can't see him playing that [blindside] role.

"There may be times during the season where we need Richie to fill in as a utility but they will only be for the needs of the team.

"The important thing is that Richie still has that hunger. He has the mental energy and focus and he is excited by what's coming up. He has huge passion and desire to climb more mountains with this team and that makes him a dangerous athlete."

All of this thinking is contingent on McCaw making a successful comeback from surgery to fix his cussed foot. He had pins removed as scheduled during the week and continues to progress towards a playing return that no one wants to actually put a date on.

What is clear is that McCaw doesn't want a repeat of last year, when he returned to action in early April after surgery in early February, only to find he was still struggling. He was on-off, on-off during Super Rugby as a result and then played the entire World Cup in considerable pain. His foot was still effectively broken and if it hadn't been World Cup year, he'd probably have packed up shop in August and had corrective surgery then. This year, he wants to come back smoothly and painlessly and therefore is not going to be rushed.

He's been running in straight lines for a couple of weeks and will shortly graduate to game-specific running where he will have to change direction and then take contact when he's sure his foot is holding up.

"At this stage, we don't want to set a date for Richie to return," says Hansen. "His foot will tell us when he's ready and there is no need to rush him back. He has to be right.
"He'll keep building his workload and his foot will determine how quickly that happens. If he can run and change direction without pain, he'll look to take some contact and see howhe goes with that."

While there is reluctance to be specific on when McCaw will return, there is hope that it won't be far off. A mid-season return is probably a major advantage in the bigger picture. McCaw has shown an uncanny ability in the past to hit top form indecently quickly after injury enforced layoffs. He's a rare beast in that he can find the tempo and rhythm of top level rugby almost immediately. If he returns to action in April, then McCaw will be looking at the bulk of his season being played in an All Black shirt. He'll have time to rekindle his instincts with the Crusaders without being required to trudge through the full season.

By June, he should be fresh, gameconditioned and at his best. There are 14 tests scheduled for the year and Hansen says it is probable that McCaw will be involved in them all. There are no specific plans to rest the skipper or ask him to stand aside for the occasional test to allow the coaches to begin grooming a successor to his No 7 jersey or the captaincy.

"Ideally you want your best players to be on the field," says Hansen. "We will continue to develop a group of leaders - the likes of Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Kieran Read and Conrad Smith are all captains or have been captains of their franchises. Dan Carter has been vice-captain of the All Blacks for a while now, so there are good lieutenants available to help Richie lead the side."

- Herald on Sunday

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