New Zealand will be relying on Richie McCaw in the defense of their Rugby Championship title, but some are wondering whether the All Blacks’ outstanding skipper can return to the same levels of excellence following a recent six-month sabbatical.
Ask any international player of the last decade who they least liked to play against, and one name would regularly crop up—McCaw.
It’s not that McCaw is the most physically intimidating or the dirtiest of players in what is a hard sport, it’s just that everything he does he does supremely well; he sets a level of excellence that frustrates the opposition and almost always grinds them into defeat.
Add to that his well-documented ability to operate on the gain-line, often pushing the boundaries of offside, and you have a player who is rightly regarded as one of the finest of all time.
The 32-year-old reached the pinnacle of his sport in 2011 when he led the All Blacks to victory in their home World Cup, their first title since winning the inaugural event back in 1987.
The physical and mental pressure of that achievement took its toll on McCaw, and the openside flanker took a well-deserved six-month sabbatical.
Now he's back, and the question that remains to be answered is whether he can rediscover the form that saw him become the first player to notch 100 international victories.
To date, he has made just two brief appearances off the bench for his club Crusaders, and there is little doubt that he will lead the All Blacks in their Rugby Championship opener against Australia on August 17.
But his reintroduction will need to be carefully managed.
We don't think he'll last 80 in Australia with the intensity and pace of Test rugby. If you want him to go 80 he would, it's just how effective he would be perhaps in the back 20 or 25 minutes.
Clearly, Sam Cane would be the guy that we use as cover and introduce him to take over from Richie if Richie is running out of petrol.
You don't earn 116 caps for the world's leading rugby nation without being a supreme athlete. McCaw knows his body better than any, and specifically how to manage comebacks after similar periods out of the game with injury.
As Fox also explained:
Richie has banked a lot over the years. You don't lose a lot, it's in the tank and it's been there for a long, long time building. He took a bit away when he took his break but he's proved it before when he's come back from injury that he doesn't take long to come up to speed.
McCaw's intelligence will serve him well as he plays himself back into top form. A key attribute of all opensides are the lines of running they take reaching the breakdown and making tackles.
The best flankers have a sixth sense which allows them to track the ball with the least amount of running.
That sense gets better with experience, and there are few who doubt McCaw will continue to be a major thorn in opponents' sides until he finally decides to hang up his boots for good.