A cut above the rest
September 25, 2012
Richie McCaw stands above everyone else for Test matches won © Getty Images
Should the All Blacks conclude their Rugby Championship campaign with two more wins, it will be more than just an inaugural title and a clean sweep of victories. It will also mark a fresh landmark for Richie McCaw.
Having overtaken George Gregan as the international player involved in most victories when the All Blacks hammered Ireland in Hamilton earlier this year, two more wins will take McCaw's total to 100. The extent of this achievement - which we can assume, unless he were to suffer a long-term injury, is only a matter of time - can be seen from the facts that there are still only 21 men who have played in 100 Tests, never mind won them, and it is only 21 years since Serge Blanco became the first man to play in 50 winning international teams.
As the 'winningest', in American idiom, international player of all time, McCaw joins a list of legendary names stretching back to William McLagan, the abrasive Scot who played in more winning teams, 18, than anyone else during the nineteenth century.
His all-time mark passed rapidly in the first decade of the twentieth through a series of the Welsh hands that dominated that period - first Gwyn Nicholls, then Rees Gabe and finally scrum-half Dickie Owen*, who headed the list from 1910 until 1956, when another Welshman, Ken Jones squeezed past Owen's 27 wins in his last but one match for Wales.
Jones gave way in 1967 to Colin Meads, who in turn was overtaken by a brace of magnificent full-backs, first JPR Williams then Serge Blanco. Another Frenchmen, Philippe Sella overtook Blanco and with 70 wins led the field when rugby abandoned amateurism in 1995. But the prize of the biggest winner of the twentieth century goes to Sean Fitzpatrick, who won 74 internationals. He in turn has given way since the Millennium to first Jason Leonard and more recently Gregan, who continues to hold the most-capped record.
McCaw clearly has both the power and the desire to add. He would hardly be taking a sabbatical in the first half of next year if retirement was imminent. Instead it seems likely that he'll go on adding to a career which, like that of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, further rewrites record books every time he steps on to an international field.
There's certainly a strong case for describing McCaw as the most successful international rugby player of all time - which is not exactly the same thing as being the best, although he'd certainly be in the inevitably more subjective discussion about that. Older generations could not play in World Cups, since there were none before 1987, and had far fewer opportunities to play international rugby. Meads was an All Black first choice from 1957 to 1971, but played exactly half as many tests, 55, as McCaw has in the 11 years since he made his debut for the All Blacks in a match they might well have lost at Lansdowne Road.
He has also, unsurprisingly, won more matches playing in a single position than anyone else, although he'll need four more victories to bring up his 100 wins as a flanker. It will be some time before he is challenged for this particular record, since second place is shared by Olivier Magne and David Wilson each of whom played in 59 victories.
A positional record which may well change at the same time as McCaw records his 100th win is that for most victories as an outside-half, since Daniel Carter (68 wins) also needs two more to overtake current incumbent Ronan O'Gara (69).
John Smit is next in line after Richie McCaw for wins as captain © Getty Images
McCaw is not only the winningest player, but the captain who has won most matches, with 65 victories from the 73 times he has led out the All Blacks. Next in line are John Smit (54 from 83), Brian O'Driscoll (52 from 84), Will Carling (44 from 59) and John Eales (41 from 55). Martin Johnson's 37 wins in 45 matches is closest to McCaw's 89.04% winning percentage. Other national record holders are Fabien Pelous (27 from 42), Ryan Jones (15 from 28) tied with Rob Howley (15 from 22) and David Sole (14 from 25) McCaw's winning percentage as captain is remarkably similar to the record (89.09%) for his international career as a whole. This too figures very close to the top of all-time lists. There are great players with higher winning percentages, but most have had much shorter careers.
If we take 20 matches as a minimum for calculation, English outside-half WJA Davies and legendary All Black no 8 Wayne 'Buck' Shelford share a percentage of 93.18 per cent from careers exactly one fifth of the length of McCaw's - each had 20 wins, a draw and a single defeat (in Davies's case his debut) from 22 matches.
Current All Black Sam Whitelock has been a winner in 29 out of 32 appearances while Murray Pierce, one of the more unsung members of the awesome pack fielded by the All Blacks at the 1987 World Cup, also squeezes above the 90% line with 23 wins and a draw in 26 Tests.
If we draw the line at 50 Tests, McCaw's standing is highly apparent. Only one player, Conrad Smith, a centre who always adds an extra dimension of subtlety, can claim a higher percentage with 54 wins from 60 matches. McCaw is followed by Piri Weepu (88.8%, although the majority of his 63 caps have been as a replacement) and Carter (88.7%).
Gary Whetton (87.9%) is fifth, and the first player not a member of the current All Blacks squad. It says something both about the proliferation of test rugby in the current century and the ruthless consistency of the All Blacks that the first 23 places are held by New Zealanders, of whom only Whetton and Fitzpatrick played before 2000.
The top non New Zealander is England scrum-half Kyran Bracken (80.3%) while Eales (77.9%) leads the Australians. These three countries occupy the first 50 places between them.
Those who wonder why the Springboks continued to tolerate Bakkies Botha's periodic infractions may be informed by his 73.68% winning record (51st overall) while other national leaders in this category are J.P.R Williams (60th, 71.4%), Frederic Michalak (70.5%), the underrated Peter Stringer (68.8%) and Scott Hastings, who just edges out brother Gavin with 55.2%.
Modern players, it can be argued, have not only cap totals but winning percentages boosted by matches against countries formerly not regarded as Test standard opposition. But even if you eliminate the 15 matches (including four against Argentina, so taking a very hard line) McCaw has played against teams outside the foundation eight, his winning percentage still remains comfortably higher than that of Meads.
Nor is his lead in the main category likely to be threatened by his sabbatical. That is scheduled only to take in next year's three-Test series against France. Keven Mealamu (83 wins), Carter (79), Tony Woodcock (76) and Brian O'Driscoll (75) are all likely to make ground, but it seems highly likely he'll re-emerge for next year's Rugby Championship rather like a dominant Grand Prix leader coming out after a routine pit-stop, still well ahead of his nearest pursuers.
As to the slightly more subjective question of whether he is the most successful player, his most convincing rival is probably John Eales, who while just behind on most other counts has two World Cup winners medals to McCaw's one. Balance that account - which seems to be part of the reason for the sabbatical - and McCaw's claim will be very hard to contest.
* While Dickie Owen was registered as Owens at birth, he was known throughout his playing career as Owen. He was registered at death as Owen and has been referred to consistently as such since his death. His brother, a musician who lived into the 1960s, was always known as Owen.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.