Marshall: McCaw's return will bolster All Blacks

BETTER THAN EVER: Richie McCaw remains the best and most valuable player in world rugby.
BETTER THAN EVER: Richie McCaw remains the best and most valuable player in world rugby.

There was a bloke sitting in the grandstand in New Plymouth on Saturday night who I'm now more convinced than ever is the difference between the All Blacks remaining firmly on top of test rugby's totem pole or possibly slipping down.

The end of Richie McCaw's sabbatical will be a sight for sore eyes. 

That's no criticism of Sam Cane, Kieran Read's captaincy or, indeed, the many good things we saw the All Blacks achieve in a clean sweep of France.

But, boy, to me it's blatantly obvious we are missing the world's best rugby player. I believe his return to the side for the Rugby Championship will have a transformational impact.

Our loose forwards are doing well but McCaw's absence sticks out like the proverbials. He brings a skill set and a manner in which he plays the game that the All Blacks missed in this series and that's no fault of them - it's just the measure of the man. 

When McCaw plays, we get more turnovers, we seem to be more physical at the breakdown and we make more quality decisions. We have an intensity that his very presence on the field brings and he leads the way.  

It says plenty about us a rugby nation that we have been able to keep winning in his absence, even when we've been rattled. But in reviewing the French series, it's obvious we will significantly benefit from having McCaw back. 

Everywhere else I look I'm encouraged.

Israel Dagg went into this series under pressure and successfully reminded us that he still one of the best fullbacks in international rugby.

The emergence of Ben Smith as a world class player was another major bonus. He may have played the whole series on the wing but his quality is so evident that if Dagg was ever hurt, we've got a readymade replacement.

I can understand critics who believe we missed a chance to see Smith in the midfield by not tinkering with the Ma'a Nonu-Conrad Smith combination.

What happens if Nonu gets injured? Who plays in No 12?  With Rene Ranger leaving, who is the next best selection at centre?

But I've come to understand how the likes of Graham Henry, and now Steve Hansen, confront those tricky selection issues.

Their thinking is that they'll cross that bridge when they come to it. Until they are forced to find an answer, they won't look for it. That's their philosophy and we have to have faith in it.

And how good were Nonu and Smith in the whole series!

Equally, I have no worries about No 10. Aaron Cruden showed we now have two world class pivots and with Beauden Barrett coming through, depth as well (I just wish they'd given Barrett more than three minutes!).

Nor do I think we need to lose any sleep over halfback.

Hansen always knew Aaron Smith would come right in the All Blacks environment. Those calling for Piri Weepu's head are misguided.

It wasn't Piri's best game but you don't discard an All Black of Weepu's experience and skill set off one 40-minute performance.

In McCaw's absence, the make-up of the loose forwards has been challenging. Liam Messam has done nothing wrong at No 6, although I still get the impression Hansen would like a bigger and more physical player in that role.

We're still not quite there in replacing Jerome Kaino but Messam remains the benchmark for aspirants.

I'm happy with Cane's development and notwithstanding an uncharacteristic handling performance in New Plymouth, Read handled his first assignment as series captain with aplomb.

Nobody should be losing any sleep about our tight five.

Luke Romano and Sam Whitelock are world class locks and with Brodie Retallick and even Dominic Bird in the mix, we are well served there.

Add in the experience of Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock, along with the Franks brothers and emerging test quality players like Dane Coles we are in great shape up front.

Yes, France exposed some inadequacies and rattled the All Blacks at times. But we still won all three tests, we learnt a lot about our players and we will get better.

That's why I don't have any truck with the argument this series was a waste of time and unnecessarily pushed Super Rugby into the background.

I love Super Rugby but it's not international test rugby. This was a very good series. We had full houses, some great rugby played and we got to see one of the giants of the game in French captain Thierry Dusautoir play in our country for the last time.

Super Rugby will start again this week and we won't have missed a beat.

So let's keep these June inbound tests. But I think we should be adding midweek games. England are due here next June. I'd love to see them play three tests and three midweekers, either against dormant Super Rugby franchises or the likes of New Zealand A or Maori.

Finally, a few quick thoughts on that epic first Lions-Australia match.

The Wallabies will be kicking themselves over letting that one slip and I think they will struggle to win the series now.

Yes, they were unlucky with injuries but they are now up against a Lions side that will only get better.

James O'Connor was average at No 10 but I don't think Robbie Deans will bring Quade Cooper in. I know Robbie well and he can be a stubborn guy when he believes in something. That's just how passionate he is. 

If he, the selectors and the senior players have decided that there are good reasons why Cooper should not be in the Wallabies, the loss in Brisbane, injuries, desperation, whatever, should not change his mind.