All Blacks scrum rock Tony Woodcock a big loss

SIGNIFICANT ROLE: All Black Tony Woodcock, charging forward against England in June, may need surgery for a shoulder injury.
SIGNIFICANT ROLE: All Black Tony Woodcock, charging forward against England in June, may need surgery for a shoulder injury.

Tony Woodcock could be forgiven for feeling undervalued.

Only in his absence is his importance to the All Blacks genuinely appreciated.

Even in the modern game, loose-head props are as influential as prominent openside flankers or quality first five-eighths.

Recent changes to the scrum laws place immense forces on the No.1's shoulders. Anyone in this role with poor technique or lack of strength is now, more than ever, brutally exposed.

Over the past 12 years, during 110 tests, Woodcock has been that cornerstone; the rock of the All Blacks' scrum.

It's far from glamorous, yet incredibly significant. Without a stable or dominant scrum any team virtually folds; any form of continuity is near impossible.

For the opening Rugby Championship test in Sydney on August 16, though, Woodcock is almost certain to be absent.

His shoulder injury is being given time to recover, but there is a chance it may need surgery, which would rule him out for the remainder of the season.

Make no mistake, the Wallabies will be grateful to see his name missing.

Much of the All Blacks' 11-year stranglehold over the Wallabies, who last won the Bledisloe Cup in 2003, can be attributed to a supreme set piece and general forward pack dominance.

''That's something we're going to have to earn and work hard for,'' All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said yesterday as the squad, minus the Crusaders contingent, assembled for a two-day camp in Auckland.

''They're a big pack now and they've made some real improvements through their set piece and ball carrying. It's not going to be given to us.''

Woodcock has been a key figure in this aspect and there will be pressure on the Crusaders' Wyatt Crockett and Hurricanes' Ben Franks to replicate those efforts against Waratahs tighthead Sekope Kepu, who is favoured to start.

Woodcock's work around the track may have diminished slightly in recent years, but his efforts at the scrum in particular remain unmatched in the New Zealand game.

''We don't want anyone to go down injured but it's a fact of life. Tony has been very durable for us and we're going to give him a little window to see if it does come right,'' Foster said.

''It represents another opportunity. Wyatt and Ben have been in the squad a long time and have got a lot of experience. They'll be jumping out of their skin.''

Woodcock, 33, Crockett, 31, and Franks, 30, are all aging loose-head props.

Post-World Cup there is a need to develop a succession plan. For that reason, the Highlanders' Kane Hames, 25, and Chiefs' Pauliasi Manu, 26, are training with the All Blacks this week.

''It opens the door for a couple of guys that have worked really hard at Super Rugby. Kane and Pauliasi have done some really good stuff,'' Foster said.

''It's a chance for us to expose more guys and I think that's positive.''

This time last year the Wallabies were in turmoil - they'd lost the British and Irish Lions series and Robbie Deans had just been sacked.

Foster noted their progress under Ewen McKenzie since, having won their last seven tests.

''They certainly grew a lot last year,'' he said.

''From the first time we played them to watching them on the end of year tour they showed a lot of development. Clearly they're making some gains and they're a lot more comfortable with how they do things. The Waratahs success will give them some confidence but we're equally happy with where we're at.''