Craig Dowd
Richie McCaw more valuable now than in his prime
Craig Dowd
August 27, 2014
New Zealand's Richie McCaw and Kieran Read pose with the Bledisloe Cup © Getty Images

The old cliche says that rugby starts and ends up front, and that is exactly what happened when the All Blacks wrapped up another Bledisloe Cup series at Eden Park on Saturday. The All Blacks' backs were great - fantastic - but the foundation was definitely laid down by the pack; the forwards went about their business with a single bloody-minded focus on actually taking Australia on.

I think it all goes back to what they went through, the soul-searching they had done throughout the week, probably the hard word that was put on them, after the draw in Sydney; their response in coming out and playing the way they did was outstanding.

I thought Dane Coles, again, had the best game he had played in the All Blacks jersey. He just keeps getting better and better. It was evident to me when Kieran Read scored his try that Coles was the guy doing the unselfish work, who actually kept bridged over the ball and cleared the ruck straight in so the ball was available; that's the sort of unselfish work that the forwards have got to do.

The question is how do the All Blacks maintain the level of performance they delivered in Auckland?

And I think every member of the backline would have watched that scrum when the pack completely demolished the Australians for a penalty try and would have thought, "Right, we're going to have some fun tonight, the boys up front have done their job for us and now we can go about our business". A backline gains huge confidence when they see their forwards do that.

The game also showed that All Blacks can play Australia with 14 men, but the Wallabies can't play New Zealand with 14 men; Australia just crumbled when Rob Simmons went.

It has also become evident to me that international teams have to strike the All Blacks on an off-day if they are to win. But even on that off-day, they have to rise to the All Blacks' level; that is the only time they will beat us. On a graph, they can only beat us is when there is an overlap while the All Blacks drop and the opposition rise beyond the median line.

The question is how do the All Blacks maintain the level of performance they delivered in Auckland?

To answer that, I think you only need to look at Coles and Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden, who are just some of the young players in the side who understand what it takes to win at international level and to be that good. There's a lot of talk about the other end of our All Blacks, those players who are getting older, but there are some young players who are getting more and more experience in that environment who are actually getting better and who haven't peaked.

Sam Whitelock is one of the All Blacks from whom the best is yet to come © Getty Images

There's a conveyor belt in New Zealand rugby and to the doubters we can say, "You should see what we've got coming through the ranks". The All Blacks have never been on the decline; sometimes in the past we have lost a core of players together, as in 1998, one of the worst seasons we have probably had, when we saw Frank Bunce, Michael Jones, Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown and Zinzan Brooke all go at the same time. There was a bit of a void in experience coming through. But now there are players in every position who are pushing for inclusion.

Last year, we could have said that the players 1-15 were confirmed in their roles; but now Israel Dagg can't get back in and I thought Ryan Crotty had a superb first 40 minutes at second five-eighth, and now there is talk about Sonny Bill Williams coming back so the midfield now is just congested.

Richie McCaw is worth more right now than when he was in his prime because of the way he leads and how he plays.

Steve Hansen hasn't really had many headaches until this point, but the All Blacks coach is assured of some headaches in Rugby World Cup year. Just look at the outsides of the backline: you've got the Smiths, Dagg, Savea, Jane, Gear, Piutau … you can run a list of names and then you realise that Hansen can take only so many to the World Cup.

Twelve months out from a World Cup is a great time, as players with a sniff of selection really push hard. It's every international player's dream to play at a World Cup, and so we will see a lot of names coming forward.

And how good was Richie McCaw on Saturday? He's an enigma in his ability to keep doing it. His indiscretion was cynical and wrong, and he knew because you could see on his face. But he responded beautifully.

Looking at him in the sin-bin, I thought he was the one player we couldn't afford to lose in a Test match. But I was wrong. Kieran Read immediately stepped up and then you've got another All Blacks captain in Conrad Smith so there were two All Blacks captains still on the field. They immediately stepped up and took the mantle. Read was talking to the referee straight away, and doing what a captain needs to do. And then McCaw came back on the field clearly looking to make amends for what he had done; he certainly did.

Richie McCaw was outstanding in Auckland © Getty Images

When McCaw first came on the scene, and was quickly established as the best rugby player in the world, he was phenomenal. But I would much rather have the hard-arse piece of leather that Richie McCaw is now with all that valuable experience. He is worth more right now than when he was in his prime because of the way he leads and how he plays.

He's got no regard for his own body, and every game he plays he looks as if he's taking the attitude that if he gets smashed up it is near the end of his career anyway; and with that approach, there are 14 other guys thinking "Well, if Richie can play like that I have to play to his standard".

Michael Hooper played gallantly, tried hard and scored a fine try, but the Australians started to play like individuals whereas New Zealand played as a team all the way through. Even with 14 men they stayed as a team. Their defence was sublime; there was a trust in each other and their systems are all down pat.

These All Blacks have been continually setting standards. They did that at Ellis Park against South Africa last year. They did it in the third Test against England and they did it last weekend. It is bloody difficult to keep playing at that level, but you can take that attitude into a World Cup and know what needs to be done.

What do the Australians need?

There is no-one in their forward pack who strikes fear into the opposition. All the best teams have that quality, and it goes back to my original point about the front five.

Will Skelton could be one who could be like that in a couple of years time but he's got a lot of work to do. That is Australia's challenge. It's the sort of thing they did in the 1990s, with John Eales and Michael Foley and Toutai Kefu and Owen Finegan. Names like that gave Australia a really respected forward pack. That's what they've got to look to get back to if they want to kick on.

The Wallabies need some mongrel behind Michael Hooper, Craig Dowd believes © Getty Images
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