John Mitchell
Clear Richie McCaw was special from the outset
John Mitchell
August 19, 2015
Hansen pays tribute to McCaw

Richie McCaw was always going to be someone special from the time he first played for Canterbury under the tutelage of Steve Hansen, a 60-point flogging of Otago back in 2001.

That individual performance did not go unnoticed, and I duly selected the 20-year-old McCaw for the All Blacks' tour of Ireland, Scotland and Argentina in the autumn of 2001. It culminated in his outstanding first Test match against Ireland when he was named Man of the Match. Without any bells and whistles, he enjoyed a beer with his teammates in Donnybrook and thereafter got stuck into his preparation the next week with purpose. Even back then, Richie even had the self-confidence to offer a view on how we could prepare better.

He was ahead of his years. He belonged to All Black culture very quickly and earned the respect of the group, which speaks for his character, passion and the courage he displayed on a day-to-day basis. He was, however, not muscular like he is now - 238 lbs or 107 kg - he was long and lean in body type, with an enormous engine aerobically, and anaerobically, that was a cut above the rest. I still vividly remember Richie trying to chase down Caleb Ralph, a former 400m runner, in a three-kilometre time trial where he was not far away from 10mins 30 sec.

Richie was fortunate to have mentors in both Reuben Thorne and Tana Umaga, while crafting his own authentic leadership path. His attitude offers a perception to a teammate that good is never good enough. Instead his mantra has always been: "I want to be a great All Black and captain." I believe the adversity he would have felt personally, and what the All Blacks experienced in the 2003 and 2007 Rugby World Cups, provided him with a platform of strength to move forward as the captain and leader of team culture.

Richie McCaw was one of six All Blacks veterans to farewell Eden Park at the weekend © Getty Images
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He learned the hard way during the 2003 World Cup when English referee Chris White and Australian loose forward George Smith dominated the breakdown in our ill-fated semi-final defeat at Telstra Stadium. It was ironic how another English referee, Wayne Barnes, stopped his, and the team's, momentum again in 2007. You could see Richie was gutted and partially lost but, like all great warriors, he dusted himself off and rose to meet the next challenge.

He was fortunate to fall back on and play his part in an excellent provincial rugby program. The five Super Rugby titles attained under the outstanding and pragmatic Robbie Deans helped the young McCaw harness his professional behaviours, skill-sets and build his belief.

The older McCaw - currently 34 years of age - is superior in his mental conditioning these days. He has morphed into a strategic thinker, is deliberate in his actions and continues to execute with accuracy, albeit a little slower. His mental toughness is second to none. The way McCaw endured and persevered with a broken bone in his foot at the 2011 World Cup was exemplary. The injury would have played on the minds of most international rugby players and signalled the end of their tournaments; but not one Richard Hugh McCaw.

Moreover, his adaptability, single-mindedness and connectedness to allow third and fourth-choice first five-eighths Aaron Cruden and Stephen Donald to feel safe quickly and not distract the team from becoming extraordinary; this was truly remarkable. The man who flies gliders for fun, and his long-serving All Black teammates who have acted as the critical mass, eventually came to own the team structures during Sir Graham Henry's successful reign.

Cast your minds back to the moment when Richie sat perched on his knees after the 8-7 win over France in the 2011 World Cup final. All Black No.1014 was clearly mentally drained having carried the emotions of a nation on his broad shoulders. The saying of emptying the tank could never have been more fitting. However, it was neither the first time nor the last.

All Blacks conjure Men in Black
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Reuniting with Hansen, who took the helm in 2012, has allowed Richie and Dan Carter to be managed in life, training and game-load to enhance the team culture by being afforded more freedom to connect and relate. McCaw trusts his talent and keeps his shape in just about every moment, even when dealing with inconsistent referees. However, the skipper allowed himself a deserved tear of joy on the podium post the Eden Park thrashing. The All Blacks retained the Bledisloe Cup under his active watch, and the external burden of having to win a World Cup has been extinguished. I sense there's an even greater freedom within the current All Blacks culture. Much of the pressure comes from within to deliver the right performance through stellar preparation for width, individual skill-sets and catch-and-pass.

McCaw drives that through his own example both on and off-field. There is something about him that is truly old fashioned. He plays with blood and guts, and that stands out above the rest in the modern professional era. There are no ordinary moments when Richie McCaw, the most-capped Test player in history (142 Tests), prepares and plays in an All Blacks jersey.

Richie McCaw exited Eden Park to a standing ovation at the weekend © Getty Images
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So, who turns down a knighthood? In my book, only a man that is not finished and trusts himself and who he is with. I understood where he was coming from when he spoke of his first match and his desire to add to the legacy and 100-plus year history of the team. He said he always wanted to leave something of himself in the jersey, and there's no better example of that than his performance this past Saturday against Australia. The standing ovation he received from 48,457 fans at Eden Park was a special moment and an emotional occasion.

Whatever transpires in the next few months, Richie, you were and still are a privilege to meet in person and to watch on the field of play. Furthermore, you are a fine New Zealander who will be valued forever. I speak for all who see you, admire you and have come to love you. Thank you for the wonderful memories but, knowing you as well as I do, you won't be entirely satisfied until you have scaled your last mountain with distinction.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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