Like a high-stakes tradeoff, the day after the Wallabies lost their inspirational skipper for Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup showdown in Sydney, the All Blacks have today seen their own Captain Fantastic limp out of the contest.
Marc Hinton writes for RugbyHeaven NZ that the All Blacks confirmed skipper Richie McCaw, who had been originally named to make a dramatic injury comeback and start the test on the openside flank, had lost his battle to prove his fitness and was withdrawn from the lineup.
Auckland’s Daniel Braid, who was New Zealand rugby’s player of the year in 2007, will now start the match in the No 7 jersey, ending a five-year spell in the international wilderness.
It had been a huge call in the first place to include the All Blacks’ most influential forward. McCaw went down during the June 21 test against England with a serious high ankle sprain, medical opinion later suggesting he faced a six-week minimum recovery period.
But when the 62-test veteran began training with the All Blacks in Wellington this week, he had looked a good chance to complete a “miracle” recovery.
Coach Graham Henry subsequently named him to start in the No 7 jersey at Tuesday’s team announcement, though Braid was designated as his official backup.
Henry said at the time that McCaw was only a “50-50″ chance to play, but added it was hoped he would take his place for the pivotal Tri-Nations contest.
“He’s got the determination and the desire to play, he’s done all the rehab and he’s making good progress,” said Henry.
But the coach said McCaw’s “instinct” would ultimately guide whether he would be all right to play – and in this instance the skipper has obviously had an early gut feeling he would not be up to a clash of this magnitide.
Braid now steps into a massive starting assignment against the proven one-two combination of George Smith and his bench backup Phil Waugh. It will be Braid’s first appearance in the All Black jersey in five years, his last appearance coming at the 2003 World Cup.
Rodney So’oialo re-assumes the captaincy in McCaw’s absence, and the Wellington loose forward will be hoping he fares better on that front than he did in Dunedin when the All Blacks stumbled to their first home defeat in five years.
McCaw’s defection directly offsets the Wallabies’ own pre-test blow when skipper Stirling Mortlock was ruled out of the match with continued head problems following on from last weekend’s big win over the Springboks in Perth.
Both men are hugely influential performers for their teams and in the buildup to a test of massive significance and pressure such as this one it’s essentially a straight tradeoff.
The pressure now goes on to the respective understudies, Braid and Ryan Cross who will play centre for the Wallabies, to step in and show that they can perform somewhere near the level of the celebrated leading men they replace.
The All Blacks will travel to Sydney on Thursday with 24 players. Flanker Adam Thomson and wing Rudi Wulf join the match-day 22 in making the trip across the Tasman.
NEW ZEALAND: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Anthony Tuitavake, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Andy Ellis; 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Rodney So’oialo (c), 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock:
Reserves: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 John Afoa, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Sione Lauaki, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Conrad Smith.