Wellington – The All Blacks’ advance to a second successive World Cup final appearance was feted in New Zealand on Sunday, but local media fretted that a stray elbow could rule talismanic captain Richie McCaw out of the title-decider.
The defending champions will play the winner of Australia and Argentina for the Webb Ellis Cup after a tense 20-18 win over South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday.
But rugby-mad New Zealand faces a nervous wait to see whether McCaw will be cited for his contact on Francois Louw after he felled the Springboks flanker early in the match.
Video footage posted online shows McCaw charging into a ruck after 20 minutes of the match and Louw reeling from a blow as the New Zealand captain brushed past in pursuit of the ball.
The loss of the inspirational 34-year-old to suspension would be a big blow to the All Blacks’ hopes of a back-to-back championships and a likely sad ending to the playing career of one of the game’s finest players.
McCaw has not declared he intends to retire from the game after the World Cup but is widely tipped to do so.
New Zealand’s top rugby pundits went into overdrive defending McCaw’s honour on Sunday, blaming a British media conspiracy and claiming suggestions the contact might have been deliberate were “insulting”.
“It’s typical that the knives are out for Richie McCaw right to the end of his celebrated career,” Duncan Johnstone wrote in Christchurch newspaper The Press.
“Next weekend’s World Cup title match is the perfect finale for the game’s finest player.
“But with their usual impeccable timing, his place in that match is now being scrutinised by his good mates in the British media.”
New Zealand Herald columnist Wynne Gray also declared McCaw’s contact with Louw “innocuous” and “accidental”.
“McCaw is no saint as he runs the legal margins every time he challenges for possession at rucks, breakdown and tackled ball zones,” Gray wrote.
“However, he is no cheap shot merchant.”
There were few other worries for the All Blacks, who appeared to emerge without any serious injuries from the highly physical win over the Springboks.
Graham Henry, who coached the All Blacks to their 2011 World Cup win on home soil, said the highly physical semi-final was the perfect preparation for the title-decider.
“It will be great for next week because they didn’t play particularly well but they did the job,” Henry told New Zealand radio.
Australia play Argentina in the other semi-final at Twickenham later on Sunday.