CARDIFF • The All Blacks have insisted that talisman Richie McCaw is foxing and not missing in action at the breakdown.
The New Zealand skipper's performance has come under the microscope as they prepare for their quarter-final clash against France with the most-capped player in rugby history barely firing a shot during pool games.
The one time he was clearly visible was when acting as a waterboy in the All Blacks-Tonga match, and fly-half Dan Carter quipped he could not even do that properly.
But the most telling statistic from the All Blacks' clean sweep in pool play was the low number of turnovers won - a total of 27 in four matches.
Eight against the powerful Argentina pack was a fair effort.
However, low numbers against Namibia, Georgia and Tonga begged questions.
TRYING OUT TACTICS
We can vary how we want to defend.
You will see in a lot of pool play we're not contesting rucks a lot but we're putting teams under pressure through our line speed and physicality...
SAM CANE, McCaw's understudy
Among the other quarter-finalists, Wales lead the way with 38 turnovers, followed by Ireland (31), Australia (29) and France (28). It leaves New Zealand fifth equal with Argentina on a list they usually dominate.
McCaw has a reputation as a tackler and ball winner in the dark arts of the breakdown.
However, in the tournament statistics, he has barely made an impression, apart from the 12 tackles against Argentina.
Sam Cane, McCaw's understudy in the No. 7 jersey, explained the reason for the skipper's absence on the turnover list was that the All Blacks were not trying for turnovers in the first place.
Coach Steve Hansen has said throughout the tournament the All Blacks were using the first four matches to rehearse scenarios they will likely face when the tournament is into the knockout phase.
Hansen has put a curb on kicking for territory as one way of putting pressure on themselves and Cane revealed they were also testing new defensive strategies.
"We can vary how we want to defend," he said.
"You will see in a lot of pool play we're not contesting rucks a lot but we're putting teams under pressure through our line speed and physicality, that way forcing teams into errors and trying to cut down their time and space.
"We can change that because obviously we've got guys who are good (at the breakdown) as well so it's just depending on the opposition... as to how often we try and contest the breakdown."
With the four-match rehearsal over, the defending champions have declared themselves ready for the sudden-death matches, starting with France at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
"We've been waiting a long time for and planning a long time for this game after pool play," assistant coach Ian Foster said.
But one thing the All Blacks will not be planning on is having McCaw reprise the role of waterboy he performed when resting a sore leg in the Tonga match.
Carter, who also relied on him delivering his kicking tee for shots at goal, said he was "pretty poor at it, to be honest. He dropped the tee a couple of times.
"I asked him to tell me a joke but he couldn't think of a joke.
"He was actually squashing my tee but he didn't know.
"What else did he do wrong?
"Oh, he started talking rugby before I was kicking, so I'm pretty keen to get him back in the team rather than running water.
"It's probably the only thing he can't do, to be honest, being an incredible Superman that he is."