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.
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 only rugby since has been 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.
Coach Steve Hansen has never doubted McCaw’s readiness and says the veteran has added value already this week with a critique of the recent three-Test series whitewash of France.
“He’s been sitting back watching through the June series and he’s got his thoughts on that and how we can improve our game.
“He’s pretty keen. The pleasing thing is the flow-on from Reado, because he’s continuing to lead really well as well.”
McCaw, Read, 27, and flanker Liam Messam, 29, will form the oldest New Zealand loose forward trio since 30-year-olds Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones and Mike Brewer played Australia in 1995.
Elsewhere, prop Tony Woodcock will start his 99th Test and hooker Andrew Hore his 77th.
Hansen says 34-year-olds Hore and fellow hooker Keven Mealamu, on the reserve bench, were preferred over youngster Dane Coles because of the latter’s lack of recent rugby.
Good form in a provincial match for Wellington on Thursday may see the injury-plagued Coles restored for the return Wallabies Test in Wellington next week.
Second five-eighth Ma’a Nonu was cleared of an ankle injury and will start his 80th Test.
Aaron Cruden replaces the injured Dan Carter in one of six starting changes from the slightly experimental side who won the third French Test 24-9 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 veterans McCaw, Woodcock and Hore replace Sam Cane, the injured Wyatt Crockett and Coles respectively.
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.
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.