Wallabies future No 7s eager to face McCaw
Richie McCaw invariably outflanked George Smith and Phil Waugh, Australian rugby's terrier-like tag team - and now the All Blacks captain confronts two young pups emulating the rivalry shared by the legendary Wallaby loose forwards.
David Pocock is the Wallabies premier openside for the foreseeable future and McCaw's closest rival at the breakdown but as he nurses a Rugby Championship-ending knee injury, 20-year-olds Michael Hooper and Liam Gill are indulging in healthy competition to fill the No 7 jersey.
The test careers of Smith and Waugh overlapped for nine years until they were phased out during formative stages of the Robbie Deans three years ago era as Pocock grew in stature.
And now Hooper and Gill form part of the long-term succession plan as they vie to back-up Pocock until he regains fitness, possibly in time for the Wallabies tour of the UK, Italy and France in November.
Hooper made his test debut during the June international window against Scotland while Gill was captaining Australia at the under-20s World Cup in South Africa so for now he holds seniority and first dibs on Pocock's role against the All Blacks at Eden Park tomorrow night.
The second Bledisloe Cup test represents a huge challenge for Hooper who has never matched up against McCaw during the three seasons he spent at the Brumbies.
Gill at least has some background: notably the final quarter of last year's Super Rugby final where his Reds triumphed over the Crusaders in Brisbane. He had another tussle with the All Blacks captain at Christchurch in May so is not overawed by potentially adding impact in Auckland.
"There's no fear. The challenge is understanding and slowly building into the game. It'll be a completely different standard to what I've ever been used to," Gill said.
Injury concerns for hooker Tatafu Polota Nau and No.8 Scott Higginbotham delayed confirmation of the bench until today but Gill is expected to feature, as Hooper did in Sydney last weekend.
Deans never employed Pocock and Hooper in concert against McCaw but with Pocock unavailable and the Wallabies badly beaten at the collision at ANZ Stadium he may be tempted to revert to the tactic of using two specialist sevens to pressurise the 107-test veteran.
Waugh and Smith were selected picked against McCaw on 14 occasions - five times they started in the same loose trio - and although the New Zealander boasts a 12-win 2-loss success rate the ploy was effective at one opportune moment, the 2003 World Cup semifinal.
Deans was criticised for not including a back-up openside at last year's tournament after the pool loss to Ireland when Pocock was injured and has responded accordingly.
"They're two blokes who've been on the radar, we've seen them coming on, they're now ready to go," said Deans of his dynamic duo.
"We have been waiting essentially for their bodies to catch up so they can cope with playing at this level. It's nice to also have the depth, and also the competition around Poey."
Deans said Hooper's cameos against the Scots and twice against Wales gave him confidence the rookie would rise to the challenge posed by McCaw, Kieran Read and Liam Messam.
"He's got good footwork and he carries the ball well. His speed to the breakdown will be important.
"We weren't good enough in any way around the contact area, the All Blacks were very effective at getting between us and the ball, we have to be smarter and more effective."
Hooper and Gill have both matured through the under-20s side though they did not play in the same squad and despite their age and experience head-to-head clashes have been rare.
"We've always managed to miss each other so far. Michael was injured in his last year at school and the first year of under-20s he was injured as well," said Gill.
They matched up twice this year when Queensland played the Brumbies and Gill expected their continuing rivalry to enhance their skills.
"We'll certainly keep each other honest and there'll always be a competitive nature between us," said Gill, who was happy to work side by side Hooper.
"Beau (Robinson) and I do that with Reds. It just gives you another person attacking that breakdown, and makes continuous breakdowns a whole lot easier. That's certainly a big plus of playing two opensides."