COMMENT

For a fleeting moment last week everything felt right about the world.

It's World Cup year, Super Rugby is about to start and there were Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter front and centre of the news agenda.

It was just like old times, McCaw and Carter soothing nerves with their gently voiced confidence about the All Blacks' ability to navigate World Cup year with a sensible and ultimately clever plan.

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McCaw and Carter, the old guard, wise, assured, controlled and quite brilliant – two men who didn't have to do anything much at all to give the All Blacks an aura of invincibility.

McCaw, when he was captain, was never one to be anything other than measured and if he said he was happy with how things were tracking you knew he meant it.

As for Carter, he had a sixth sense that seemed to allow him to look into the future and understand how the All Blacks were going to have to set themselves up tactically to succeed.

But the problem of having McCaw and Carter talking publicly last week about the All Blacks, was that when the former hauled himself across the South Island and the latter was sat atop a horse promoting polo, it snapped the illusion of them still being international rugby players.

Richie McCaw and Dan Carter led the All Blacks to a second successive World Cup in 2015. Photo / Getty
Richie McCaw and Dan Carter led the All Blacks to a second successive World Cup in 2015. Photo / Getty

The nostalgic bubble burst and the reality fully absorbed that neither of them are going to be playing for the All Blacks at this coming World Cup.

They retired from test football after the 2015 World Cup final and yet in a funny way, the enormity of that only hit home in the last few days.

The All Blacks have had to play without them for the last three years but somehow, now that we have reached World Cup year, that feels like something to worry about.

This will be the first tournament since 2003 that the All Blacks have not had McCaw and Carter in their squad and while the national side has managed well enough without them since 2016, a World Cup is an entirely different business.

World Cups are won by old, calm heads doing the right things at the right time. They are won by the team that best handles the pressure and doesn't fall apart when a few things don't go their way.

They are won by the team that finds a way to stay in the contest regardless of refereeing atrocities, wild upswings in opposition form and hostile crowds willing failure on the favourites.

No one was better at staying calm than McCaw. No one was better able to instill conviction in others than him and throughout both 2011 and 2015, there was a sense that McCaw, by the strength of his determination alone, would ensure the All Blacks would emerge triumphant.

Carter brought a similar mindset that enabled him to deliver the critical plays and points that serve as the foundation of success in knock-out rugby.

He would land the near impossible penalty; drop the goal no one saw coming or, as he did in 2015, pin the Boks in their own territory for 20 solid minutes to ensure they couldn't find the three points they needed to win.

The uncomfortable truth about last week is that it served as a reminder that media around the world wouldn't be so keen to brand the All Blacks vulnerable if McCaw and Carter were still around.

And even more uncomfortable is that most New Zealanders probably feel the same way – that the doubt which stabs them deep in their stomachs when they think about the All Blacks' World Cup chances wouldn't be detectable or even there at all if the old duo were going to be occupying jerseys seven and 10.

Kieran Read has been a strong and influential captain, doing things in a more collaborative and inclusive way.

The All Blacks narrowly avoided defeat against England last year. Photo / Getty
The All Blacks narrowly avoided defeat against England last year. Photo / Getty

He's helped grow a number of players, been a big reason why the All Blacks have enjoyed a record between 2016 and 2018 which is almost as good as the one McCaw's team delivered between 2012 and 2014.

But it's uncertain whether he has the force of personality and single-mindedness to haul his team through seven games in Japan and make history with a third consecutive title.

Much of that uncertainty is driven by the fact he hasn't been captain of the All Blacks at a World Cup so naturally there is a yearning for the proven qualities of McCaw.

Beauden Barrett, like Read, has been quite sensational in the way he has grown into the playmaking role with the All Blacks.

On many fronts, he's already surpassed Carter but again, we come back to the inescapable reality of World Cups, which for a No 10 are about strategy and nerve.

Barrett can make the improbable happen but in Japan, it will be more important that he simply focuses on the probable and puts the All Blacks in the right places on the field, kicks his goals and sees the space where to attack.

By 2015 Carter didn't have the running game to damage opponents but he didn't need it such was his tactical control and accuracy with his boot.

Barrett's game management has been criticised at times in the last two years - some of it fairly, some of it not, but because of the inconsistency, there is an element of nervousness about his readiness to be the All Blacks' tactical general at the World Cup.

He's an incredible talent and he also has the depth of character to advance his game in the next six months to the point where not one New Zealander will be hankering for the days of Carter.

But last week was not just fun taking that nostalgic trip back to a time when McCaw and Carter ruled the roost, it was comforting and reassuring.