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July 17, 2009

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All Blacks bank on McCaw for Tri-Nations' Wallabies clash

RICHIE McCaw leads the All Blacks into tomorrow's Tri-Nations test against Australia amid expectations that his presence alone will lift New Zealand out of a mild slump in form.

New Zealand won two of three tests against France and Italy to open its international season while McCaw was sidelined with a knee injury, but the performances fell below the standard the All Blacks need to reach to beat the Wallabies as they begin their defense of the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup titles.

The All Blacks split a two-test series with France and struggled to its narrowest-ever win over Italy while Australia beat the same teams in overlapping series by larger margins and in more commanding style.

Recent form has made Australia favorite to win tomorrow and end a 10-match, 23-year losing streak against the All Blacks at Auckland's Eden Park. New Zealand has pinned its hopes of extending that streak, and its run of four straight Tri-Nations titles, on the return of McCaw and fellow test veterans Rodney So'oialo and Sitiveni Sivivatu.

All three players are making their first test appearances of the season: McCaw and So'oialo among the loose forwards, in one of the test's crucial matchups, and Sivivatu on the left wing.

"They've made a difference already...because of their experience," All Blacks coach Graham Henry said. "Their confidence rubs off on other people."

The match fitness of the three returning players after extended injury breaks is expected to be severely tested against the Wallabies. McCaw, So'oialo and Sivivatu played club matches last weekend, the first outings for each player since the late stages of this season's Super 14.

"The first couple of games (back) are hard work but you accept that and just get out and get into it," said McCaw, who rated himself 100 percent fit. "I guess (I have) a bit of experience, having gone through it a couple of times."

McCaw and So'oialo are likely to plunge directly into one of the critical contests of tomorrow's match: the battle at the breakdown. Australia coach Robbie Deans has underscored the importance of the contest for loose ball by choosing an exceptionally mobile loose forward trio.

Deans has paired George Smith, in his 100th test, and Richard Brown on the flanks and has recalled veteran Wycliff Palu at No. 8 to give his side both mobility and solidity. Deans also named two openside flankers on his reserves bench, which has a 5-2 split of forwards and backs.

McCaw, as the only specialist openside flanker in the New Zealand squad, may bear the brunt of the battle for the loose ball. Deans, who coached McCaw at the Canterbury Crusaders, is confident the New Zealand captain will rise to that challenge.

"He will bring an absolute hunger and enthusiasm to the group because he hates watching, he hates watching average performances and he certainly doesn't like losing to the Wallabies," Kiwi Deans said.

The critical selection decision for New Zealand centered on the choice of flyhalf in the continued absence through injury of Dan Carter. The preference of specialist Stephen Donald over utility Luke McAlister pointed to a conservative game plan from the All Blacks.

Donald played with little authority in his two test starts against France but he emerged as a sounder option than McAlister, a converted center.


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