When Richie McCaw carried the ball for the first time in a Test he was smashed in the tackle and lost possession. Up high in the stand at Lansdowne Rd, All Black coach John Mitchell wondered what sort of response he would get from the young loose forward.

The answer did not take long and reinforced Mitchell's selection intuition about the 20-year-old. The All Blacks, like McCaw, made a slow start that day in 2001 but waltzed it by the end of the international, while the loose forward picked up the man-of-the-match award in his Test debut.

No one was sure where McCaw's career would go after that afternoon at the old stadium in Dublin. He was clearly a talent, a great prospect in a position where the All Blacks had been so well served in previous eras. Men such as Josh Kronfeld, Michael Jones, Mike Brewer and Paul Henderson had all been marvellous in the No 7 jersey. But McCaw?

His return from a knee injury to lead the All Blacks tomorrow has McCaw ticking off his 71st cap and his 34th as captain. Defeat has been an infrequent companion for McCaw since his debut on that dull Dublin afternoon. Just seven losses since then, four in Graham Henry's reign and just three when he has worn the captain's armband.

They are impressive numbers to stack up alongside his imperious play.

McCaw's reputation grew through age-group rugby and he made a brief start to his Super rugby career as a substitute in 2001. It was then on to the NPC where he scored three tries in just his third game against Otago.

As Mitchell rose to be national coach in those turbulent times, McCaw put forward his credentials for the end of year tour.

"I was looking for someone who was a genuine breakaway, a specialist, and Richie just stood out," Mitchell recalled. "His ability to get his head over the ball and stay planted there was a standout.

"Then round the field he was like an Eveready battery with his support inside and out. It was incredible."

Mitchell remembers that debut day in Dublin and McCaw's first troubled collision.

"They hit him hard and a lot of others would have lost confidence, but it did not phase Richie. He and George Smith are the benchmark opensiders in the game, they set the standards.

"George is a ball runner and Richie is developing that part of his game, but he is the best at lifting the ball while staying on his feet. He has found ways within the laws to extract possession. He has dominated his position, his class is permanent and he has maintained his standards through all the law changes and the ELVs and different interpretations. Richie is special."

You won't find any argument there from the great Michael Jones. The star of the opening World Cup who survived some horrendous injuries and retooled his game loves watching McCaw at work.

"When you watch Richie you see the difference between good and great," Jones said. "His thumbprint is all over the modern openside game - he is definitely the best in the world, followed by George Smith."

Jones is staggered at the way McCaw continues to be the "jackal" at the breakdown, his feet planted, his body bent and braced as he takes the hits from defenders and still forages for the ball beneath a fallen opponent.

The collisions have taken their toll though, with McCaw returning to test rugby tomorrow after missing the June tests because of a knee problem. There was a serious ankle injury last year, hand injuries and numerous wounds. And then those concussions. They are occupational hazards for top flankers, though somehow Smith has escaped too many as he starts his 100th test tomorrow.

Jones said McCaw's influence was most noticeable when he was sidelined. In his absences, the All Blacks were vulnerable.

"I can't recall anyone, when he is not there, leaving such a gaping hole in the side," Jones said. "It speaks volumes for Richie or shows the flipside that the All Blacks are so dependent on him. His influence has been so great that he has commanded sole rights to that No 7 jersey."

The challenges for McCaw would be to avoid injury for the next few years and to perhaps think about changing his position in the loose forwards. Jones had no choice when he returned after a knee reconstruction and he has no doubt McCaw could play at 6 or 8 if he wanted. The issue then would be settling on a replacement No 7.

"Getting over that ball is 50 per cent of the modern opensider's game. You have got to be so proficient in all departments: linking, passing skills, tackling and pace while you also have to have great strength over the ball. Richie has redefined the game at the breakdown where he is constructive and destructive.

"The terms of engagement have changed so much since my day. Only Smith in world rugby is close to Richie in his work over the ball which is where No 7s earn their reputations."

McCaw's reputation grew rapidly after his first tour with the All Blacks, but he was apprehensive about his first full season in Super 12.

This was the real deal, not the eight minutes he had spent on the park in two games the year before.

"My real fear was that I could be a two-minute wonder," he recalled. And he struggled, as he later admitted. He tried too hard. The solution came from Robbie Deans who took the young flanker aside after three rounds of the competition.

Deans began by comparing the work of two flankers, one who had flashes of real brilliance and the other who was consistently productive and earned his reputation. The coach's instruction was for McCaw to emulate the second example. The advice flicked the right switches for McCaw.

"I found it all a lot easier after that," he later said. "Before talking to Robbie, I'd been overdoing it in trying to create turnovers at every breakdown, and then becoming increasingly frustrated when I found that I couldn't. Once I settled down, I felt I was able to contribute in the way others expected of me and importantly, in the manner I expected of myself."

Adam Thompson
Has great pace and was prominent for the Highlanders during the Super 14. Then, in McCaw's absence, touted as the selectors' next preference for the scavenging role. Did not really show out before he broke his hand.

Still looks too vulnerable to compete with McCaw, Smith, Waugh and Dusautoir when they are attacking the breakdown.

Tanerau Latimer
Has finally graduated to the All Blacks this season after a very consistent Super 14. Looks to be more comfortable as a link player rather than a natural forager for possession.

Learned from the master, McCaw, when he spent a season with the Crusaders and has been consistent this year for the Chiefs. Only 23 and learning fast.

George Whitelock
Called into the squad and scored a try when he was subbed on in his debut against Italy. Has the size, pace, technique and nose for the ball which suggests he will continue to push for a place in the squad.

Also has the advantage of being able to pick the brains of the Master and to apply his techniques when he pushes out as Canterbury captain in the NPC.