New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has put his faith in the fitness and mental toughness of Richie McCaw by naming him to lead the world champions in their opening Rugby Championship clash against Australia on Saturday.
The 32-year-old has only recently returned to rugby after a six-month sabbatical from the game, playing 80 minutes of a lower level club match and making cameo appearances off the bench for the Crusaders in the Super Rugby playoffs.
McCaw had been expected to play the full 80 minutes of a warm-up match last Friday, but while he was rested for the second half Hansen is confident the openside flanker would be up to the rigours of Test match rugby.
McCaw played throughout the All Blacks’ victorious World Cup campaign with a broken foot and barely trained at all during the tournament in New Zealand but managed to lead his team to the Webb Ellis trophy through sheer bloody-mindedness.
He will face a severe test against a young Wallabies loose forward combination that is likely to start with Waratahs openside flanker Michael Hooper, with the equally impressive Liam Gill expected to come off the bench.
Uncapped Ryan Crotty could make his debut off the bench after Hansen named the Crusaders inside centre among the replacements.
The 24-year-old was brought into the squad earlier this week with injury concerns over Ma’a Nonu and extended training group member Francis Saili, then moved into contention with Daniel Carter being ruled out for up to a month with a calf strain.
Carter, 31, who began his international career at inside centre, had been expected to cover the number 12 jersey if there were injuries during the game, but his enforced absence created a selection quandary for coach Steve Hansen.
“It will give us some food for thought,” Hansen told reporters on Tuesday after Carter had been ruled out.
Hansen had signalled several positions in the team had been settled by Wednesday, with hooker Dane Coles and scrumhalf TJ Perenara named in Wellington’s team in the opening match of New Zealand’s domestic provincial competition.
Loose forward Steven Luatua was also released to play for Auckland.
Wider training group members Frank Halai and Jeremy Thrush were also released to play for their provinces.
Coles, who was given every opportunity to replace stalwarts Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore ahead of the 2015 World Cup, told local media that a calf strain in Super Rugby was the reason he would not travel to Sydney.
The 26-year-old hardly appeared in the closing weeks of the Super Rugby season and only played 40 minutes in the All Blacks’ warmup match against the Canterbury and Wellington provincial teams last Friday.
Hore will start at hooker, with Mealamu on the bench under new scrum laws that are designed to reduce the initial impact and reduce the number of collapses.
“They will take some time to bed in, which is to be expected, but we believe they will bring great benefits for the game in the long term,” Hansen said.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (Captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Ryan Crotty.