Rugby World Cup 2011
McCaw savouring home support
September 3, 2011
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw is swamped by fans on a team walkabout © Getty Images
Upon further reflection, Richie McCaw will hope that the rain avoids any further parades during the Rugby World Cup.
As the All Blacks skipper led his team out to greet the waiting public at their capping ceremony in Auckland on Saturday the heavens opened, leaving the flanker dodging raindrops as well as the dancing feet of the traditional Maori reception party.
The grim irony was appreciated by the healthy throng gathered at Aotea square for the event, which saw McCaw, fly-half Dan Carter, halfback Piri Weepu and superstar centre Sonny Bill Williams win the cheer battle as they collected their commemorative caps from International Rugby Board (IRB) boss Bernard Lapasset prior to Friday's tournament opener against Tonga at Eden Park.
After a week touring the country's smaller regions and rugby clubs the All Blacks are back in the big city, and as ever the fans' mood is teetering on that difficult line between hope and expectation.
Their heroes looked the part, decked out in their team suits, but at times were frustratingly human, with influential No.8 Kieran Read sporting a protective boot on his sprained ankle and Otago flanker Adam Thomson still feeling the effects of last weekend's bruising loss to the Wallabies.
According to coach Graham Henry the latter is just over a week away from a return, while Read should play again before the end of the Pool stages. His cupboard is relatively bare in the back-row, with locks Sam Whitelock and Anthony Boric set for loose-forward duty as a result, but Henry maintained an air of calm as he evaluated the situation. All eyes are on his players, but to no harm. According to their coach they thrive on it.
"It's outstanding. To play a World Cup at home, with the support of your own people, is very special," he said. "Around the country, having that support is very stimulating for the guys. There's obviously huge expectation but we were just blown away by the crowd here today."
McCaw was more cautious in his evaluation, admitting that the squad had spoken about the added pressure they would face as they set about reclaiming the William Webb Ellis Cup for the first time since the inaugural tournament, also on New Zealand soil, in 1987.
"You've got to enjoy the fact that everyone is excited about it," he said. "We've still got to get our preparations right. We talked about it when we first came into the camp, that the whole feeling of excitement and people around is going to be a lot more than we've experienced at any other time. We've got to make sure we don't let that compromise what we've got to do."
Henry also cast a tentative eye ahead to the knockout stages, confirming that he had taken a step back from the 'one game at a time' mantra preached by many in the game. The former Auckland coach has evaluated the tournament as a whole as he seeks to avoid a repeat of his side's quarter-final loss four years ago, in part because of the lack of knockout rugby found in the southern hemisphere.
Unlike their European counterparts, for whom the Heineken Cup reigns supreme at club level, the south's finest go into this tournament without recent exposure to the format.
"It's unique because we don't play sudden death rugby, and we're certainly playing that here, hopefully" he said. "If we get beaten in the Tri-Nations, we've got a game next week. It's quite different. We've got to look at that and think about what that means."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Baines is a freelance rugby journalist