Spurious claims about the spirit of French in Taranaki paper over Hansen's big cracks.

Richie McCaw - your country still needs you.

I've long believed that the great one has covered up fairly serious deficiencies in New Zealand rugby and the series against France has done nothing to dispel the theory. To take it a step further, Kieran Read also failed to convince that he is ready to step up as the captain. His game looked affected by something in Taranaki and his overall contribution has been down in this series. The captaincy crown did not fit comfortably, especially in the first and third tests.

McCaw's replacement at No7, Sam Cane, is physically strong and battles away in the trenches but he's short of proving his test worth yet and has left more doubts than anything. Number seven is a tough jersey to wear in the All Blacks - the standards tend to range from exceptionally high to legendary. Put it this way - the jury is still out, especially as Cane lacks not only the x-factor, but the breakdown knack, which is an area where a young No7 might excel.

There will never be another McCaw - no player will exercise the influence he has for such a long time. How his body and enthusiasm stand up to the punishment, I do not know. His contemporary loose forwards are long gone. The All Blacks need to keep blooding and moulding Cane, but test selection must be about merit and, barring a massive form deterioration, there's still no doubt about who is the number one No7.


McCaw's influence has extended to the game's off-field image, where his respectful, boy-next-door public demeanour and aeronautical pursuits suggest an almost Hillary quality. If ever a rugby player is going to appear on a banknote, it is R.H. McCaw.

There are a lot of people from high positions in New Zealand rugby - Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Steve Tew, Robbie Deans et al - who owe a decent slice of their reputations, income and even continued employment to one incredible bloke.

The McCaw-less All Blacks were shabby in Taranaki. France were ripe for the picking but instead of putting a foot on the throat, New Zealand stuck one on the brake.

Almost inevitably, we ended up with spurious claims about how spirited the French were. France, a leading test nation and New Zealand's World Cup nemesis, don't need patronising. Hansen patted the visitors on the head, praising them for "spirit" but desperation should be a gimme in the make-up of a top test side.

France needed to come to New Zealand with significant guns blazing but they resorted to a series of bombs at the Bread Bin, a tactic that brought back scary reminders of the 2007 World Cup, which turned into kick tennis. The All Blacks, meanwhile, were befuddled, lacking a unified energy and direction. It was a boring test to watch, enlivened only by the contrasting wing styles of Ben Smith and Rene Ranger. Hansen's praise of France was - presumably - an attempt to deflect attention away from the All Black failures.

Test rugby over the weekend was saved by the dramatic contest in Brisbane, where Australia had major goal-kicking problems. The travelling Lions supporters express a joie de vivre missing in our own sporting culture. Win, lose or draw, they always seem to be having a whale of a time. When combined with a superb stadium like Suncorp, this enthusiasm produces memorable results. A terrific test series is in store ... and long may the Lions concept prosper.

SBW could help Kiwis at No 6

If the Kiwis are short of a No6 playmaker at this year's World Cup, they might consider Sonny Bill Williams. Playing on an injury that threatened to keep him out of the match, the giant forward was a makeshift five-eighth for the Roosters who upset the Bulldogs on Friday night. And he was terrific, especially with the timing of his passes.

New Zealand are well served at No6 with Kieran Foran and Benji Marshall - who has sparked back into life for the Wests Tigers - in the queue. But Williams offers unique possibilities for Kiwis coach Steve Kearney on this NRL showing, if only for short periods during a game.

So long as injury doesn't intervene, the Kiwis will be able to send an imposing team to Europe to defend the title. It will be the best ever in the modern era, by a long way, if key players such as Issac Luke are on board. Another making his mark is Williams' clubmate Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who is a candidate for having the most magical feet in the union or league codes.

The Blues and the Warriors should be kicking themselves, and getting a good kick from us, for letting Tuivasa-Sheck get away.