Richie McCaw hopes to end a glittering career by lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time, writes MARC HINTON.
Four years on, it’s a vastly re-energised Richie McCaw who presents for rugby’s four-yearly global jamboree we all know as the World Cup. Where in 2011 the All Blacks captain limped through a tournament in which the weight of expectation fell heavily on his shoulders, in 2015 it’s a positively jaunty figure leading the New Zealand tilt at history.
It’s part of McCaw’s incredible legend – when he finally calls it quits, almost certainly after the All Blacks’ final bow in October, his body of work may be the finest the game has ever seen – that he hobbled through the 2011 global tournament on a fractured right foot with probably the greatest exhibition of mind over matter since Buck Shelford got his scrotum stitched up and ran back out against the French in the ‘Battle of Nantes’ in 1986.
‘To do what he did with his foot broken showed the courage of the man,’ observes All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who was an assistant back in 2011. ‘The mental strength he displayed to play as well as he did and to be there, to keep the team confident, was just remarkable. His ability to stay in the fight and get all the way through the tournament was massive.’
Remarkably, four years later McCaw is in considerably better fettle at the age of 34 as he heads to his fourth, and final, World Cup. He’s been well looked after in the interim by his bosses at New Zealand and Crusaders rugby, and has clearly operated on a programme all about peaking between July and November, rather than earlier in the gruelling season. It has worked beautifully.
But his standards remain remarkably high, even in these twilight years of his career. He may not be the spritely figure he once was and he may not own the area over the ball like he once did, but he is still a heck of a rugby player who has made up for declining pace and athleticism with a motor that has no off-switch, incredible instincts, unwavering commitment and a general nous and appreciation for the game that continues to place him among the very best practitioners of the art of the openside flanker.
Plus, he’s probably the greatest leader the game of rugby has known. His record as All Blacks skipper will in all probability never be matched. Heading into the second Bledisloe Cup Test of 2015 in Auckland, he had led the All Blacks in 103 Tests, and won 91 of them. In fact, before Auckland, under McCaw the All Blacks had lost just three of their 53 Tests since the start of that 2011 World Cup. He and his team are on some sort of a tear.
Fellow loose forward Kieran Read marvels at his captain’s commitment and says it’s impossible not to be inspired by it. ‘He has no regard for his body and when you see that from your skipper, it’s hard not to follow.’
McCaw has been totting up some remarkable numbers in recent times. He played his 100th Test against France in pool play at the 2011 World Cup, then notched his 100th Test victory against South Africa in Johannesburg in 2012. In Cardiff last year, against Wales, he brought up 100 Tests as captain and in Sydney’s Rugby Championship closer he equalled Brian O’Driscoll’s world record of 141 Test appearances
But McCaw is about so much more than just digits in the history book. Since he debuted for the All Blacks as a fresh-faced tearaway in Dublin back in 2001, he has set an incredible standard in the No 7 jersey of his country and seen off a succession of world-class pretenders to his position. From Marty Holah to Chris Masoe to Daniel Braid to Sam Cane, with others in between, outstanding loose forwards have stood in his shadow, and suffered by comparison.
You could make the case that a fully fit Cane would start for any other country in the world, but this gifted young No 7 must patiently wait for the McCaw embers to finally die out before he can take up the legacy.
All indications are that McCaw means to go out on top as he takes what is widely expected to be his last lap of the track at the World Cup (he says he won’t make a decision on his future until then). The All Blacks are desperate to make history as not just the first New Zealand side to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on foreign soil, but the first team to defend the crown. They have a side in exquisite form and with the ideal mix of hard heads and fresh faces to do the job.
If they do prevail, you can be sure McCaw will be leading the way, on one leg or two. He was remarkably good when the All Blacks snatched victory in Johannesburg with another cool-headed close-out in a tight spot, and all indications are he is on top of his game as he heads to England. And pumped about it.
‘It’s not hard to get excited because the All Blacks have never done that well overseas at a World Cup and it’s an opportunity you don’t want to let slip,’ he says. ‘With the experience you’ve got – you know what it’s going to take – you’re certainly not going over there just to give it a crack. We’re going over to make sure we do everything we can, and that’s already started.’
What chance that last circuit of the track turns into a victory lap?
– This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine