By Daniel Gilhooly
Nearly nine months after trudging off Twickenham in defeat, rested All Blacks great Richie McCaw returns to Test rugby against Australia in Sydney on Saturday night.
McCaw will lead a hardened New Zealand side in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash which will expose whether his 32-year-old frame is short of a gallop.
A proven performer in the past with little rugby under his belt, McCaw faces his biggest cobweb-brushing exercise both physically and mentally, having reclaimed the captaincy from Kieran Read.
He stored the boots away after his 116th Test, the heavy loss to England in London on December 1, to pursue other interests at home and overseas.
His return to training two months ago was followed by an 80-minute club game, two late bench appearances for the Crusaders and 40 minutes against Canterbury in an All Blacks squad hitout last Friday.
McCaw will be the second-oldest player to wear No.7 in an All Blacks Test behind 33-year-old Bob Stuart, against France in 1954.
And linking with Read, 27, and flanker Liam Messam, 29, provides New Zealand with its oldest loose forward trio of the professional era. It's the most grizzled since 30-year-olds Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones and Mike Brewer faced Australia in 1995.
The front row has also done the hard yards. Prop Tony Woodcock will start his 99th Test and 34-year-old hooker Andrew Hore his 77th, with the lively Crusaders trio of prop Owen Franks and locks Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano rounding out the tight five.
Manawatu teammates Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden are the halves while second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu was cleared of an ankle injury and will start his 80th Test.
It is the 70th cap for long-time midfield partner Conrad Smith, playing inside the back three of fullback Israel Dagg and wings Julian Savea and Ben Smith.
Cruden replaces the injured Dan Carter in one of six starting changes from the slightly experimental side who beat France 24-9 in the third Test at New Plymouth on June 22.
There are just three differences from what was regarded as the first choice All Blacks XV who crushed the French 30-0 at Christchurch a week earlier.
They see McCaw, Woodcock and Hore replace Sam Cane, the injured Wyatt Crockett and Dane Coles respectively.
Coles was released to play NPC rugby this week, meaning Test centurion Keven Mealamu is the reserve hooker.
Uncapped Crusaders back Ryan Crotty is the reserve outside back cover.
Crotty, 24, was called into the wider training squad on Sunday to replace the injured Francis Saili.
He was promoted onto the Test bench ahead of fullback specialist Charles Piutau due to his midfield prowess, with Carter's injury robbing New Zealand of second five-eighth injury coverage.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty
source: newshub archive