England v New Zealand
Inspired McCaw leads from the front
November 27, 2008
Ali Williams and Richie McCaw are dejected following their Rugby World Cup 2007 exit at the hands of France at the Millennium Stadium last year © Getty Images
One of the unforgettable images from last year's Rugby World Cup quarter-final was All Blacks captain Richie McCaw embracing lock Ali Williams at a crackling Millennium Stadium as French players celebrated their remarkable 20-18 victory.
New Zealand's latest failure on the World Cup stage has become a reference point for a side, and a captain, rebuilding the seemingly indestructible confidence that had carried them between tournaments.
McCaw's captaincy came under close scrutiny following the defeat. An independent review pinpointed McCaw's reluctance to change tactics when it became apparent that referee Wayne Barnes' decisions were going against New Zealand in the second half as a deciding factor in the loss. McCaw's call for a drop-goal came only after his side had squandered a prime position, condemning the All Blacks to another premature exit.
With just over a year having passed, the All Blacks are returning to their formidable best as they look for a second Grand Slam in four seasons. Having retained the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations title earlier in the season, the side are making steps towards next World Cup, blooding younger players and retaining key senior figures.
McCaw has added to the feel-good factor as the All Blacks prepare for their last Test of the season - a Grand Slam decider with England at Twickenham. The 2008 squad are not yet dominating as the 2005 Grand Slam side did, but in toughing out results against Wales, Ireland and Scotland, as well as a genuine scrap against Munster, they have shown that they are regaining belief in themselves.
Going in to Saturday's Test, the All Blacks have not conceded a point in the second half on tour, and are yet to concede a try in a Test match.
A resurgence in New Zealand's leadership credentials has impressed McCaw. "I think that's a positive from the year," he said. "And with the experiences you go through you'd hope it would improve. We've had to come from behind and although that's not the plan I guess the good thing is when it doesn't happen the senior players have kept believing in what we're doing.
"It would be easy to start making more mistakes when you get under pressure, that's what's been pleasing this year - we've absorbed the pressure and taken our chances."
As skipper, McCaw has been at the forefront of New Zealand's resurgence, note his side's two Tri-Nations losses to South Africa and Australia occurred while he was on the injured list, and the 27-year-old also feels that he has developed as a skipper. "The experiences you go through definitely make you stronger. A year down the track I've learnt to back my gut instinct, what you believe in and stuff like that. Hopefully I'm better than I was back then. The other thing that's key is to keep performing yourself.
"If I look back on the year I've been reasonably happy I've done that. That's the first thing you've got to do as a captain."
McCaw is also quick to credit the presence of the senior players who had resisted the lure of overseas pay to fight through a defining season for the side, and at Twickenham the All Blacks will field the most-capped pack in their history, the starting eight having amassed 363 caps.
"They've gone through another year and played another 15-odd tests as well. A lot of them have 50-60 tests now, that has to make the team stronger."
The most experienced forward packs ever selected for the All Blacks Test side ahead of Saturday's international against England at Twickenham:
363 caps v England at Twickenham, Nov 29: Rodney So'oialo (54 caps), Richie McCaw (69), Jerome Kaino (14), Ali Williams (60), Brad Thorn (23), Neemia Tialata (31), Keven Mealamu (64), Tony Woodcock (48).
361 caps v Italy at Marseille, Sept 7, 2007 (World Cup): Rodney So'oialo (37), Richie McCaw (55), Jerry Collins (44), Ali Williams (42), Chris Jack (62), Carl Hayman (41), Keven Mealamu (47), Tony Woodcock (33).
360 caps v Australia at Dunedin, Aug 16, 1997: Zinzan Brooke (53), Josh Kronfeld (25),Taine Randell (7), Robin Brooke (39), Ian Jones (65), Olo Brown (45), Sean Fitzpatrick (90), Craig Dowd (36).