James Neville pays tribute to the great Richie McCaw.
The statistics that summarise the career of Richie McCaw are quite staggering: 148 tests (starting 141), 131 wins, 110 as captain, 89% winning record (this dipped to 69% for the games he did not play in during that period) and two time World Cup winning captain. 14 years an All Black, never dropped.
The late great Jonah Lomu will go down as one of the greats and his international career lasted eight years. Illness aside in his particular case, this is a common theme amongst New Zealanders in the pro era particularly where the likes of Chrisitian Cullen (seven years), Aaron Mauger (six years), Jerry Collins (six years), Chris Jack (six years) for example, were all considered amongst the best, if not the very best, in their respective positions. But when they showed the slightest dip in form or signs of being past their best, there was no sympathy and they were duly replaced.
McCaw remained more or less irreplaceable throughout his time in the side which is all the more remarkable given the position he played and the fact that he was so often targeted by opponents.
One must also try and appreciate what the number seven jersey means to New Zealanders. Where kids in this part of the world grow up dreaming of being an out-half, in New Zealand the position of open side wing forward is the most cherished and analysed. This is not surprising since it was in New Zealand in the early to mid 1890s, when rugby went from the combination of nine forwards and six backs to the current formation of eight forwards and seven backs, that this position was invented and indeed first brought to international recognition by Donegal-born All Black captain, Dave Gallaher. It is also worth recalling some of his adversaries at this time, who again came out on top in the occasional battle with McCaw but ultimately lost the war. Some were genuinely great open sides, including the current Australian duo of Hooper and Pocock, George Smith, Phil Waugh, Thierry Dusatoir, Neil Back to name a few.
What marked him out though was his nose for danger. The ability to get in the way, legally or illegally, and be a nuisance to the opposition just as they were building momentum or threatening to get back into the game. The deliberate collapsing of a maul against France in the recent World Cup quarter final is a perfect illustration of this.
The fact that his side ultimately won 62-13 is irrelevant. The French have a proven past ability for winning seemingly un-winnable games. With New Zealand leading 29-13, the French were going through a purple patch. In the 47th minute they started a lineout maul twenty two metres which was in reality their last chance of getting back into the game. McCaw collapsed the maul just before it got close enough to warrant a yellow card. Through sheer frustration Louis Picamoles himself got sin binned and the All Blacks ran away with the game.
Another statistic from his career that is considered a mystery is that he only got yellow carded three times in test matches, that he allegedly had some psychological hold over referees. There is probably a small grain of truth in this but the reality is that he was simply very smart and knew the laws of the game inside out as well as understanding the psychology of referees and when and when not to push their buttons.
Indeed his yellow card in his side’s opening game of the 2015 World Cup against Argentina where he was penalised for a foot trip was one of the extremely rare occasions where he did something genuinely dumb on a rugby field, which again, given the context of the position he plays in, and the ongoing temptations for indiscretion that it brings, is again remarkable.
He also won World Player of the Year three times in 2006, 2009 and 2010. There was something of an outcry in this part of the world in 2009 given the credentials of our own Brian O’Driscoll who had in that same season toured with the Lions, captained Ireland to a Grand Slam and won a Heineken Cup with Leinster. However, the recent World Cup has once again illustrated that rugby north of the Equator has to be considered the second division and any achievements in the European game, however impressive, have to be taken in context.
McCaw was the number one player in the number one team in the number one competition (Tri Nations/ Rugby Championship, which he won ten times), the best of the best of the best.
He also won four Super Rugby titles with Canterbury Crusaders as well as four other final appearances. This is a competition that in some people’s eyes pales in comparison to its European equivalent; the Champions Cup due to the former’s propensity for producing high scoring games and the latter’s commercial success. But in pure rugby terms it may as well be a sport from a different planet. To give some perspective on this you need only look at the selection of Australian Rocky Elsom on the Heineken XV of the first fifteen years in 2010, after only a single season with Leinster or the southern hemisphere dominated Toulon side that has lifted the trophy for the last three consecutive seasons.
Richie McCaw made his debut against Ireland at the old Lansdowne Road in 2001 and was awarded man of the match. It was felt by his own coaches at that time that his game needed work particularly his ball skills and that he needed to evolve from being just a groundhog turning ball over on the floor.
Not a natural ball player as such it was always highly impressive therefore to see him, as his career progressed, acting as a first receiver, particularly off lineout moves and developing his game to its maximum potential. His greatest attribute though has to be his willingness to take on responsibility when games were at their most tense, particularly on those rare occasions when the All Blacks were trailing on the scoreboard.
When watching back old games it is always noticeable that when the opposition had a long range penalty shot at goal in a tight game, and especially in bad weather conditions, he positioned himself under the posts to field the ball if it dropped short.
Technically speaking this would not be a function of this position, and there were certainly more skillful players capable of fulfilling this task but McCaw always put his hand up while others seemingly went missing.
Similarly in this year’s Rugby Championship, with his side trailing to South Africa, he called a tricky lineout move to himself and ultimately scored a try to regain the lead with only minutes remaining. He has never shirked the hard tasks, and when someone of the stature of Sean Fitzpatrick describes him as his country’s greatest ever captain, no doubt moments such as this are to the forefront of his mind.
He now states that he wishes to pursue a career as a commercial helicopter pilot. Does this mean his direct involvement in the game is at an end? Hopefully not but it would appear that pursuing a coaching career is not currently on the agenda.
To take the recent World Cup as an example, of the Head Coaches of the eight quarter finalists, only one, Phillippe Saint Andre was capped at international level.
Indeed in Ireland’s case, we have had six coaches in the professional era namely Murray Kidd, Brian Ashton, Warren Gatland, Eddie O’Sullivan, Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt, none of whom were ever capped.
While not a rule by any means there is certainly a pattern and this ‘failure’ is often a driving force that spurs these men to achieve great things in the coaching world. Where would Richie McCaw summon such motivation given the fact that a possible coaching position would always be doomed to failure in comparison to the greatest playing career the game has ever known.
James Neville, Pundit Arena.