James Horwill: Richie McCaw still has class
James Horwill smiled when asked if rival captain Richie McCaw might be a potential weakness in tomorrow's opening Bledisloe Cup test, and then turned serious about the importance of containing the All Black legend.
Although McCaw has had minimal preparation for his first test since England ruled at Twickenham last December, Horwill said his presence was again an impediment as Ewen McKenzie strives to open his reign as the Wallabies head coach with a rare win over the world champions.
"He's played 116 test matches, I don't think you can say that's a gamble," said Horwill, who missed an opportunity to gauge McCaw's comeback at close quarters during the first round of the Super Rugby finals series.
Horwill was subbed before McCaw made a final quarter cameo for the Crusaders against the Reds last month, not that he needed a reminder of the flanker's prowess at the breakdown and as a leader.
"He's one of those blokes that's just all class isn't he? He's done everything in the game and I think the big thing for him is he makes the guys around him perform better and gives them an extra bit of confidence.
"Something I don't think can be underestimated from an All Black point of view is the effect he has on his team-mates and the confidence that he gives them."
McCaw can obviously have a detrimental effect on the opposition although Michael Hooper and Liam Gill - individually or in tandem - will relish the opportunity to test the veteran's accuracy and endurance.
"We spoke about the breakdown before and he's certainly a guy that does well there," said Horwill, who was impressed with McCaw's capacity to expand his skill set after 12 seasons of test rugby.
"He's certainly also adding extra strings to his bow, he carries the ball well now and he has the ability to play not only at seven but if they bring Sam Cane on he can play six or eight, so he's got that versatility that he didn't have earlier on," said Horwill.
The breakdown will naturally be a focal point at ANZ Stadium and an intriguing battle considering McCaw's only 80-minute shift this year was in Christchurch club rugby - and blindside Liam Messam was a late withdrawal with hamstring injury.
Ewen McKenzie has also had issues with the composition of his loose trio with No 8 Wycliff Palu sidelined by injury.
Ben Mowen switches from the blindside to the back of the scrum while Hugh McMeniman replaces the Brumbies captain for his first test since 2008.
McCaw was hopeful he could go the distance in combination with Kieran Read and Messam's inexperienced replacement Steven Luatua.
The Chiefs skipper would be missed, McCaw said, but he backed Luatau to fill the void.
"The way he's played this year for the Chiefs and what he did last year, he brings a real physical edge. Not having him there has left a bit of a hole but Steve coming in and Kieran and myself just need to make sure not too much changes."
Meanwhile, he did not expect the Wallabies to offer too many surprises with McKenzie at the helm.
"A change of voice will add a bit of zing to them but they're the same players that we've played against through Super Rugby and before.
"From our point of view it doesn't change things a whole lot."