New Zealand coach Graham Henry has confirmed vice-captain Richie McCaw is his number one choice to replace Tana Umaga as All Blacks skipper.
The veteran centre retired this week and the Canterbury flanker was always the favourite to assume the mantle, but Henry’s public backing has made the succession a virtual certainty – fitness and form permitting.
Henry told The Sunday Star-Times: "It’s not set in concrete but a blind man can see what we have been doing.
"McCaw has been vice-captain of the All Blacks and filled in for Tana already and that’s what we have been grooming him to do.
"Unless something untoward happens in the next couple of months he will be the front runner."
The 24-year-old first led the All Blacks against Wales 18 months ago, and he will not be confirmed in the position until the end of the Super 14 season.
The All Blacks’ first test of 2006 is against Ireland on June 10, two weeks after the Super 14 final – after which, the New Zealand Rugby Union usually announces its squad.
Henry added: "There will be ongoing discussions and we will announce the result of those at the appropriate time but I think it’s reasonably obvious what’s happening there isn’t it?
"We have been grooming Richie McCaw for some time and there is a bit of water to run under the bridge before that announcement was made. But if everything runs well over the next few months it’s obvious.
"He has captained the side in a couple of major Test matches on the end-of-year tour against Wales and Ireland and he’s the front-runner.
"We have a leadership group with 12 players and that’s an ongoing development process we have been going through for the last 18 months.
"That’s in place and obviously all those guys are going to have to take another step forward with Tana not being there. I’m sure the guys understand that and will be looking forward to the challenge."