Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain, has brushed off the almost certain loss of centre Conrad Smith for today's Rugby Championship opener against Australia, when the world champions could set a new record for consecutive victories.

New Zealand's final preparations for the start of their title defence hit a pregnant pause yesterday morning when Smith travelled home to Wellington to be with his wife for the birth of their first child.

Malakai Fekitoa, an exciting young talent, will come off the bench to replace the 77-Test veteran in midfield and Ryan Crotty has been called into the squad, even if coach Steve Hansen has not given up hope Smith might play a part in the match.

Loading article content

"It's happened enough times in the past," said a phlegmatic McCaw. "Just look at the last Test we played when Conrad broke his thumb. Malakai was the last guy to play at centre in the last Test so him slotting in will be fine.

"At the end of the day, if you let those things influence what you do in the weekend, you haven't really got the environment set up right so hopefully everyone's aware of what's going on and have prepared as such."

That sort of sangfroid in the face of disruption typifies the sort of team culture that has helped the All Blacks match the record for most consecutive victories for a top-tier nation over the last 14 months.

An 18th successive victory today would add that record to an already impressive collection of honours the All Blacks have achieved in the last three years, including the World Cup triumph and back-to-back Rugby Championships.

In today's other match, South Africa host Argentina at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria with the Springboks expected to take a bonus point from the first fixture in their six-game programme against a team they beat 73-13 at home last year, running in nine tries.

De Villiers, 33, returns to the team, and the captaincy, after a long injury layoff. The inside centre, who has not played for 12 weeks, said he felt as if he was starting again. "It gives me new energy as well, having to prove myself again and show that I'm still good enough, but that is exciting," he said. "I'm just as young as the guy on my inside and outside tomorrow."