Rumours are swirling of an imminent leadership challenge within the All Blacks camp.
Speculation began that Richie McCaw may face a challenge to his captaincy of the All Blacks, after the team’s near-loss in the Rugby World Cup final.
While the All Blacks won the final, the victory was narrow, and concern is growing that the team may be in need of fresh leadership and a new direction.
The near-loss in the October final has already claimed a number of victims, including the head coach Sir Graham Henry. Sir Graham resigned shortly after the game, although he denied reports he was being forced out by unhappy players and NZRU officials.
Sir Graham admitted shortly after the final whistle that the team had not played as well as it could have on the day. However, the full All Blacks spin machine was quickly into damage control, as both he and McCaw later claimed to be delighted with the result.
Rumours of a challenge have been fanned by observations that McCaw has been largely absent from the game since late last year.
McCaw has barely been seen on the rugby field since the final, prompting speculation that NZRU strategists are well aware of the public’s declining support for McCaw. Officials have all but admitted publicly that McCaw’s ongoing absence from the rugby field in recent months is a result of fatigue and weariness, and the need to freshen him up before the new season begins.
McCaw has appeared in a number of television commercials recently, but one insider said this was a sign McCaw was looking beyond a life in rugby and was attempting to obtain some financial security for himself in the event of a leadership challenge.
It is also understood that McCaw’s teammates have become sick of his ongoing criticisms of the team and his generous praise towards opponents of the All Blacks.
In a number of after-match speeches last season McCaw admitted that his team had not performed as well as it could have. In one notable speech McCaw acknowledged that his team had lacked composure and discipline at crucial times and had thrown away too many chances to win the game.
McCaw also praised the spirit of opposition teams on a number of occasions, observing that a good deal of credit was due to them for the way they played.
It is unclear whether these speeches demonstrate a move by McCaw away from the core values that once made him such a winning force for the All Blacks. There has been concern in some quarters that McCaw may be trying to drag the All Blacks in a different direction and force them to play more like their opponents.
Long-time All Black activists are unlikely to tolerate any such attempt. Since international rugby went professional in the 1990s numerous die-hard supporters of the team have bemoaned the direction the game is going in. Their grievances include the absence of rucking, the proliferation of muscle-bound giants on the playing field, and the fact that someone with the build of Terry Wright might as well nowadays just play soccer.
A move to replace McCaw may come as soon as this week. It is understood that a number of players were infuriated at McCaw’s Sportsman of the Year award at last week’s Halberg Awards.
It is unclear whether a challenger would have the numbers to roll McCaw, but a number of All Black players have strong support from their teammates and from the general public. They include Piri Weepu, Dan Carter and Conrad Smith.
Even if McCaw survives a leadership bid, his difficulties may not be over.
Polls had the All Blacks as overwhelming favourites to win the final game of the Rugby World Cup, but their stumble almost cost them victory. If McCaw survives this challenge, it is unlikely that team players and management will tolerate such a poor performance from McCaw again.