One is the New Zealand Colts captain on the rise, the other is a former New Zealand Colts captain who rose, fell and is trying to climb again.

They are respectively Richard McCaw and Xavier Rush, two of the loose forwards who have central roles in today's opening NPC semifinal between Canterbury and Auckland at Christchurch.

McCaw is a star among the Canterbury juggernaut who have shown New Zealand a different rugby dimension this season, a young man with such talent he demanded selection.


After a strong NPC season, an All Black tag may be only a week away.

On flimsier evidence, Rush was picked for his solitary All Black test in 1998, faded as he went through a loose-forward selection shuffle, but is recuperating as Auckland captain this season.

His future is uncertain, however, and there have been strong indications he will struggle to make the Blues squad for next season's Super 12.

Rush has the edge in experience today. But he has the more difficult task as he alternates positions between No 8 and blindside flanker and tries to galvanise an Auckland pack who need to front more against the Canterbury eight.

McCaw is just set his own tasks.

The scavenging of the openside flanker, the searching for turnovers, the pressure on the Auckland inside backs, the close-in defence and linking with his attacking backline is McCaw's job description this afternoon.

He is up against another good'un in Justin Collins, but the Aucklander has not been in top form this year or had the luxury of working with a dominant pack.

Collins is also in some doubt because of a hamstring problem and Craig de Goldi has flown to Christchurch as cover.

This match will be all about the ability of the Auckland pack to compete.

Only Christian Califano has looked to be a decent front-row scrummager and if that front five is fragile, the loose forwards will have no platform to work from.

However, Auckland have injury problems in the forwards.

Robin Brooke has not made the trip south because of a back injury, and if Auckland lose, the curtain will be brought down on his illustrious career.

Coach Wayne Pivac has bracketed Bryce Williams and Bradley Mika as Brooke's replacement to partner Ali Williams, who also has an injury worry.

Seasoned centre Eroni Clarke is also tender and Tane Tu'ipulotu still raw in midfield, and Canterbury will exploit any uncertainty there.

Canterbury will not change the way they play, though they will use different versions of their pattern. They will attack the tight-five phases, look for those crucial turnovers or tackled-ball possession through McCaw, and then swing their attacks to the flanks.

The speed and width of their passing have been strong features of their victories.

Then there have been the restoration of Justin Marshall's running game, the goalkicking prowess and all-round brilliance of Andrew Mehrtens, the power and class of the Mauger brothers, the speed on the wings, and Leon MacDonald's timing from fullback.

Canterbury play with a rhythm, pace and fitness which is a shade higher than the rest.

Those attributes come without using the luxury of the reserves bench, where Canterbury have players who would all adorn other Super 12 franchises.

If they lose it will be a huge upset, because on the evidence of this year only Wellington and Otago looked as though they could halt Canterbury's surge to the NPC/Ranfurly Shield double.

If Auckland win, it will be as surprising as the selection of Rush for the test against the Wallabies in Sydney in 1998. At that stage, McCaw was part of the impressive Otago Boys High School 1st XV.

He had to board at the school because his family lived and worked on a 450ha farm near Kurow.

He has now shifted to Lincoln University near Christchurch to study for a bachelor of agricultural science degree, hence his rugby allegiance to the red and black colours rather than the blue and gold of Otago.

"I love the country life; you'll never take that away from me," McCaw said as he talked about his rugby and the shift to Christchurch.

Many see his sensible rural background as central to his level-headed approach in a year when he captained the NZ Colts and is asking all the questions of the new All Black panel.

McCaw, no relation to New Zealand Rugby Football Union chairman Murray McCaw, a Southland All Black loose forward of the 50s, had his last exam this week and heads for his semifinal inquisition today.

"My goals at the start were about playing in the NPC and I did not know what would happen when the All Blacks came back," he said. "But the last four weeks have been great.

"At the start I was just in awe of Todd Blackadder and Co, but they just said to go out and play. It has been a lot of fun and enjoyment."

It has been much tougher for Rush, the NZ Colts skipper in 1997 and 98, who has been asked to lead an erratic Auckland side this winter.

Second time round against Canterbury in a fortnight, Auckland look to have drawn the dirty number in the semifinal lottery.

However, they have fresh memories of that 38-10 defeat and where they feel they can improve.

"We have to play smarter; we went into our shell a bit last time," Rush said. "We have to be positive because this is a knockout game."

Rush said swapping positions had not distracted him and he felt the leadership had assisted his game.

All the talking had been done, the theory had been discussed, it was now up to Auckland to try to create an upset.