Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University. Two years ago Richie McCaw stood here in the middle of a huddle and gave his team both barrels.
They were hot, jet lagged, exhausted. Training was flat. With a few expletives thrown in, McCaw told them he didn’t care. He motioned to his head; now was the time to be mentally tough.
In this moment McCaw encapsulated his importance. His men, for the record, responded the following day with one of their best performances on South African soil, thumping the Springboks 32-16.
That McCaw is still producing those same speeches when necessary, still passing on the same mental edge, still walking them through the finer details the day before a test, is reassuring.
Sunday Star Times
In pressure situations there is no more valuable presence than the world’s most successful captain, having won 116 of his 131 test appearances (88 per cent).
His six-month sabbatical last year reinforced enjoyment for the game he loves and taught him to live in the now, to appreciate the moment. Time away to mix with people outside the all-consuming rugby bubble – especially those who share his passion for flying glider planes – left him refreshed.
The World Cup success in 2011 undoubtedly lifted a burden that’s allowed him to walk without his shoulders being weighed down. And now, less than one year out the pinnacle tournament in England, only injury could prevent McCaw leading the All Blacks’ attempted defence of their crown.
There’s been no shortage of hysterical opinions along the way – suggestions he is too old, or too tired.
Such theories have and will continue to be ignored. In the last four tests alone McCaw proved his leadership qualities stand above all others and, on a more personally satisfying level, after all these years, all those colossus collisions, his form warrants consistent inclusion.
McCaw remains on top of his game. In those four tests he’s scored three tries, made 30 carries, leads the Rugby Championship in tackles (54) and only missed 10 minutes from a yellow card at Eden Park. Not bad for a bloke that will today equal Sir Colin Meads’ All Blacks record for most matches (133) for the All Blacks. And still there’s not a hint of compliancy, or arrogance.
Through it all the three-time IRB player of the year remains remarkably grounded.
“His name is the one that you’d think about as one of the greats of the game. To have played as many games as him is pretty cool,” McCaw says before this morning’s test against the Pumas in La Plata.
“Each time you play you want to earn your place and have a performance that you’re happy with. It’s nice to have these milestones but it’s what you do when you’re on the track that counts. When you look back one day if you’ve done that then you’ll be proud to have done it as long as I have.”
With the World Cup edging ever closer, McCaw now knows unless injury strikes he will, once again, be a central figure.
“I was always realistic to know that the reason you weren’t going to carry on comes down to the desire to put the work in training-wise and do the things required to perform every week.
“I knew that if that dropped off at all your form is going to follow. Maybe two years ago it was hard to look four years ahead. Up to this point, I’m pretty certain that’s not the case and it’s not going to change.
“It’s not far off now and not unrealistic. Barring getting injured, which I’ve had my share of this year, I’d like to carry on. There’s seven tests this year that I’m pretty keen to get right first. Then you get a break and it’s only nine-and-a-half months and bang.
“Twelve months ago we were sitting here and it’s gone just like that. The next 12 months will do the same.”
That McCaw hasn’t been forced into a positional switch – from open to blindside flanker – also pleases him. At 33, he doesn’t possess the same turn of speed he did on debut in Dublin 13 years ago, but he’s adapted. In itself that is testament to his self awareness. As other fetches died off McCaw hasn’t merely survived, he’s evolved. These days he’s more of a physical presence, involved often on the charge and uses his experience and anticipation to make telling plays. Few others could have wrapped around Kieran Read and scored at full stretch in the corner against the Boks in Wellington.
His engine still goes all day, too. He’s comfortable slotting in at six to link in tandem with Sam Cane when required. Ultimately, though, seven will always be McCaw’s number.
“I know people talk about that but I know my best position is seven. With guys like Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam and Steven Luatua there’s no way you’re not going to play them at six if they’re available. That’s the reality. The best place for me is seven.”
Already this year threw up unique challenges. For the first time in his career, McCaw endured a sustained period of public criticism. After the Super Rugby final defeat – before the decision to penalise him in the final moments was deemed wrong – talkback lines ran hot. And again when he missed a rare tackle on English wing Marland Yarde during the second test in Dunedin.
Privately, McCaw wasn’t happy with certain aspects of his game after returning from injury. He didn’t want to be defensive and relied on those he trusted – Steve Hansen and the coaching team who have the benefit of perspective and context. He backed himself to come out the other side. Plenty of occasions during his illustrious career McCaw shied away from the hype. This time, he switched off to avoid his confidence taking a hit.
“I felt those couple of games I was playing OK – you’re always searching for better. There were a few questions asked and I guess rightly so when you make a couple of mistakes.
“The big thing you’ve got to do is not get caught up in what other people are saying outside. That doesn’t mean you don’t think about mistakes or what you’re not doing right, but if you start listening to what everyone says … often people just look at one thing and make an opinion on that. If I allow myself to go up and down like that, you’d go nuts. You’ve got to keep backing yourself.
“You can do 20 good things and one bad and you get yourself in a hole – that’s not going to help you either. You miss one tackle that doesn’t all of a sudden mean you’re a bad player. You don’t want to make mistakes but it happens. You’ve got to make sure you keep them to a minimum and work out why. If there’s a reason, then fix it.
“It’s about being balanced and seeing the whole picture. People from outside often don’t have that context.
“Deep down I knew the bits I needed to be better at.”
Hansen has built an environment of accountability where no-one is excluded. Direct and honest feedback for every player forms a focal point of this mantra. The team comes before any individual, McCaw included.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re captain and have been around for a while if you get things wrong and they need to be fixed you get told. That’s the way it should be.
“When you make a mistake you want to get it right. You have high standards.
“Getting a few games in now you start to feel like you’re in a bit of a groove.”
There will, essentially, never be another McCaw. Whenever the boots are swapped for a possible career as a helicopter pilot, he will be regarded as arguably New Zealand’s greatest rugby player. Appreciate that groove while you can.
Richie McCaw Statistics:
Debut: 2001 vs Ireland in Dublin
Tests: 131 (record)
As captain: 95
88 per cent win record (116 wins, 13 losses, 2 draws)
The Rugby Championship 2014:
54 tackles (5 missed)
310 minutes (10 minutes in bin against Wallabies)