Like him or loath him, Richie McCaw will be remembered as one of the best players to have ever played the game. The 148 times capped former All Black captain effectively redefined the role of the modern openside.
Various law changes saw the breakdown transformed just as McCaw made his debut against Ireland in 2001, and with it the technique involved in turning over possession.
Although he often pushed the patience of fans and referees alike, McCaw’s skulduggery was admired by all. After winning numerous awards, accolades and trophies, in 2015 he became the most capped international of all time, before bringing down the curtain on his illustrious career.
During his 14 year international career McCaw saw off all challengers. Schalk Burger and the Springboks laid down a physical challenge, but the former All Black captain tended to prevail.
Although Thierry Dusautoir and France claimed a few famous scalps, the French generally suffered at the hands of the legendary flanker.
Australia even opted to field two opensides to run an aging McCaw ragged, but ultimately came up short when the time came.
However, since his retirement no single player has managed to rise head and shoulders over his rivals like McCaw did. Therefore, it is difficult to pinpoint who exactly is the game’s best openside, one year after McCaw’s retirement.
Nevertheless, we have collated a shortlist of five potential candidates.
This time last year it appeared as though Australia’s David Pocock would inherit McCaw’s crown without much difficulty.
His rampant displays during the 2015 Rugby Championship and subsequent World Cup seemed to signal a changing of the guard.
Nevertheless, a mixture of injury and suspension curtailed Pocock’s 2016 season, and as the Brumbies flanker is due to take a sabbatical next year, he has left the door open to any would be challengers.
However, Pocock remains one of the most potent poachers in the game, and will no doubt be a key part of the Wallabies squad upon his return.
Although Sam Warburton has had is struggles with injury, he remains the northern hemisphere’s best specialist openside.
The youngest ever captain of the Lions, Warburton dominated the breakdown against Australia, making enormous tackles and preventing the Wallabies from creating any form of momentum during the opening two tests of the 2013 tour.
Like Pocock and McCaw, Warburton is brilliant over the ball, and is a superb reader of the game. His brilliant try saving tackle on Manu Tuilagi during the 2012 Six Nations is testament to this.
However injury has curtailed Warburton’s influence in recent seasons, and has reduced his effectiveness as Wales did their level best to include the flanker in their starting XV.
Nevertheless, Warburton remains a shoo-in to tour with the Lions next summer, and might even regain the captaincy.
Some might continue to regard James Haskell as a six or a six-and-a-half, but under Eddie Jones the Wasps flanker seems to have found his calling.
Although he might not win turnovers like McCaw, Haskell’s work rate mirrors that of the famous All Black.
Haskell enjoyed his finest hour against Australia last summer during England’s three match tour, when he tackled himself into the ground against much vaunted opponents.
Haskell’s bulk also provides England with a great deal of ballast in attack, where Jones has used the flanker alongside Billy Vunipola as battering rams to smash through even the most physical defences.
Although Sean O’Brien seems to be perennially injured, he doesn’t need much game time to find full throttle.
While his performance against Canada earlier this month wasn’t too much to write home about, O’Brien was superb against the All Blacks in Dublin.
His raw power put Ireland on the from front just as it seemed they were only playing in reverse, while his strength at the breakdown won a number of important turnovers.
It was little wonder why the kiwi media highlighted O’Brien as one of the few Irish players to fear.
Had O’Brien managed to hold onto the ball when the line seemed to be at his mercy at a key juncture in the second half, Ireland may have well gone on to win the game.
Ireland are a different beast with O’Brien in their side, and the flanker will be key to their Six Nations campaign next year.
As many kiwis remain split over who is the better openside, so are we. Up until very recently Steve Hansen seemed to have earmarked Sam Cane as McCaw’s heir apparent, but the performances of Ardie Savea cannot be ignored.
Savea was superb against Ireland last weekend, slowing down possession just as it seemed as if the Irish were on the verge of finally making a breakthrough.
Likewise, Cane has been in terrific form for the All Blacks and the Chiefs in 2016, and leaves Hansen with two outstanding young opensides to select from in the future.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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