In an All Black world without the majestic Dan Carter, the commonly-criticised Colin Slade is king.
While Rugby World Cup hosts New Zealand remain mired in gloom after Carter, 29, injured himself in training last week, the All Black assistant coach Wayne Smith moved quickly to maintain morale in a rugby-mad nation aching for a glimpse of the Webb-Ellis trophy since 1987.
Smith, not short on hyperbole, stepped in to assure the krushed Kiwis: “Colin is not too different from Daniel really. He's got a good skill set. He's a brave kid physically, he's strong in his defensive channel.
“We have not lowered the bar at all. There is a lot of belief in Colin. In my experience if you walk in the company of people who believe in you, then you can achieve anything and our expectations are really high. "
Methinks he does reassureth too much before Sunday’s quarter-final against the rugged outsiders Argentina.
Slade, 23, utterly failed to shine in his two starts in the famous black jersey against Japan and Canada. He has come on during comfortable victories over Tonga and France. In that final pool game against Canada, scrum-half Piri Weepu landed a perfect four out of four kicks while Slade, after scoring just five out of ten, was left to spent the last 25 minutes out on the wing.
Though a natural No9, Weepu is a popular choice to replace Carter as kicker, but Smith insists that despite the loss of the “world’s best fly-half”: "Our plans remain the same, expectations are exactly the same, belief in the squad is exactly the same, so we don't see that anything has changed."
What Smith neglects to mention is the truth. Slade has grown up in Carter’s bootiful shadow, and came through Christchurch Boy’s High School five years behind his fly-half rival. He was forced to move to the Highlanders from his hometown Crusaders in the Super 15 this season. Other promising Kiwi fly-halves like Nick Evans and Stephen Donald have headed for Europe and given up trying to be Carter’s stand-in.
That’s why Aaron Cruden, the 22-year-old fly-half for the Manawatu Turbos in the National Provincial Championship was the “official replacement” when Carter’s left adductor longus tendon snapped after just four kicks in training last week. Slade made his All Black debut when he replaced Cruden against Australia in the Tri-Nations last year. Neither man is truly considered to be a Carter in the making. Slade’s performance in this year’s Tri-Nations defeat against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth proved that point.
Graham Henry’s post-traumatic quotes are closer to the truth: “It's devastating. This was going to be Daniel’s pinnacle, this was his scene, this World Cup in New Zealand. It was going to be his big occasion."
New Zealand, favourites at this World Cup as they are before most global rugby contests, last played the Argies five years ago. They won 25-19 in Buenos Aires and have been spying on the Pumas in training this week. Smith admits: “Argentina’s entire game comes from what they do up front. We are expecting a huge test.
"They are actually pretty smart as well, they have probably given away the least penalties - they are going to attack us."
Wing Cory Jane and full-back Israel Dagg, both injured in the penultimate qualifying win over a below-par France, are both expected to recover for the Argentina game, which follows South Africa – with batterproof Bakkies Botha fit again – playing against an Australian side shoved into the “southern” half of the draw by giantkilling Ireland.
The northern hemisphere clashes see England, under-fire for their off-field activities, planning to play the off-form Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half with Toby Flood at inside centre following injury to the much-maligned Mike Tindall. Opponents France, in even more disarray than the English, will arrive more in hope that belief though Marc Lievremont insists: “The World Cup starts here.”
Perhaps the most attractive quarter-final will be played first in the Wellington biscuit tin, where Ireland – with the ageless Ronan O’Gara once again the indisputable fulcrum – take on an injury-free Wales, who produced a devastating 66-0 win over Fiji to complete their qualification.
Welsh Stephen Jones insists bravely: "What's important is that we implement that and try and manipulate defences so that we can play a great style of rugby."
My predictions on what will be a surprisingly low scoring weekend with drop goals rather than tries at a premium:
Wellington: Ireland 15, Wales 12 (6am in England, 7am in South Africa)
The Irish came in to the World Cup on the back of four depressing warm-up defeats – but topped their group for the first time in RWC history thanks to the shock win over Australia and the final 36-6 thumping of Six Nations rival Italy. Wales crushed Fiji to finish runners-up to South Africa – they were unlucky to lose by a point to the champions – and have looked the most positive of the Northern Hemisphere sides. Given that Wales beat Ireland 19-13 – thanks to a sneaky line-out move which put Mike Philips away for the decisive try – in their last Six Nations clash, most pundits are backing Wales. But with Declan Kidney upping the stakes, the experienced Irish may just have the edge if Wales attempt to play an expansive game.
Auckland: England 12, France 6 (8.30am in England, 9.30am in South Africa)
Billed as the weakest of the quarter-finals, this is all about French unpredictability and English stiff upper-lip. History records centuries of war between the cross-channel rivals and this will be no different. French veteran Imanol Harinordoquy issued a deeply sarcastic “I love England” during the build-up this week, and added he expects: “Lots of fight, lots of kicking maybe.” After the shock defeat against Tonga, it’s hard to know if Les Bleus will be stung by the criticisms and destroy the English... or whether they’ll revert to type and surrender, as their football team did in the last FIFA World Cup. Ultimately, these are two teams struggling for form and cohesion. With Wilkinson and Flood ear-marked to start, England will kick the French to death as they did with Wilko and Mike Catt in the soggy 2003 semi-final.
Wellington: South Africa 22 Australia 15 (6am in England, 7am in South Africa)
The Wallabies beat the Springboks home and away in the Tri-Nations, but neither side will set much store by those results, played out with the World Cup foremost in the national consciousness. Truth is, Australia have yet to recover from the shock defeat against Ireland and Quade Cooper has yet to prove he’s the fly-half to set the team alight after guiding the Queensland Reds to the Super 15 crown this year. The Boks, unimpressive against Wales in their opening game, have put together a reasonable run since though they will miss the gargantuan boot of Frans Steyn. Pieter de Villiers has handled his injuries well, the camp is cheerful... and in Morne Steyn they have proven match winner. But it’s up front, where living legends Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Danie Russouw a enjoying their last hurrah, that this one will be won. If the old men stay strong, the Boks will do it.
Auckland: New Zealand 22, Argentina 12
Richie Macaw’s foot injury has been subjected to almost as much scrutiny as Dan Carter’s groin in a host nation desperate for global conquest. If Macaw is fully-fit, the All Blacks will Haka their way all the way to the final. Given enough possession, the Kiwi back line is the most impressive you’ll find. Israel Dagg, Sonny Bill Williams, Ma’a Nonu and Cory Jane are all capable of destroying the Argies – but if the Pumas front up and restrict possession they may make it difficult for the best side in the tournament. Ultimately, this World Cup is headed for a popular Ireland v New Zealand final... but neither the Springboks, the Wallabies nor the Poms will allow that to happen without a fight.