McCaw's final challenge
August 3, 2010
Not again? Richie McCaw faces the media in 2007 following the All Blacks' Rugby World Cup exit © Getty Images
It may not sit well with the jingoists who occupy some parts of the English rugby media, and who wish a plague on anything and anyone from New Zealand, but there is one reason why I hope Richie McCaw's All Blacks win the World Cup next year.
The reason is McCaw himself. This fellow is the greatest player I have had the privilege of watching in person, and the danger is that he may reach the end of his career without laying hands on the Webb Ellis Cup and be marked down in history as some kind of nearly man. That would be harsh and in many ways unfair - but unavoidably true.
Almost as soon as rugby began measuring men by the size of their trophy cabinets, as well as their talent, the World Cup became a must-have accessory. A recent article on ESPNscrum by the estimable John Griffiths noted that McCaw has a winning record of 88% in Tests; a fantastic individual achievement, whatever we say about the team being the thing.
But the memory is still fresh of the World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff in 2007, which finished with McCaw staring bleakly from behind a desk in a press conference room, slowly passing the fingers of one hand from his forehead back through his sweat-matted hair; a beaten man. In 2003 there was a palpable inevitability about Martin Johnson and the World Cup. It felt as if the annals of the sport had reserved a place for Johnson's face in a photo of him holding that little gold pot aloft. Is McCaw heading for the same destiny?
Purely by coincidence, I was fortunate to be probably the only British rugby reporter present for both McCaw's Test debut and that of his compadre in the modern-day Kiwi pantheon, Dan Carter. The first was in Dublin in 2001, when McCaw was named Man of the Match against Ireland. The press were asked to vote for that one, which helps me remember, and it was a pretty easy shout. I cannot vouch for it with the same certainty, but I think Carter was similarly honoured after his first Test against Wales in Hamilton in 2003.
On that occasion I interviewed the then 21-year-old fly-half straight afterwards and found a composed individual, quite comfortable with the already huge expectations of him. Not a barrel of laughs but, as Huw Richards observed of Gavin Henson recently, it is the rugby which counts.
There are those who cannot stand various aspects of New Zealand rugby. They resent a perceived undue influence over world rugby affairs (and never mind that the All Blacks have consistently set the standard and innovated on the field of play, right from the earliest days of touring). These anti-Kiwi curmudgeons celebrated loud and long when McCaw's team "choked" (aka, lost a match against France) in Cardiff in 2007. They had been fearful of a six-year New Zealand reign, from the 2005 "blackwash" of the British & Irish Lions through two World Cup wins, including the impending home tournament in 2011, but it was averted.
Yes, New Zealanders can be guilty of haughtiness when they win, and the man in the street in Dunedin or Whakatane has a one-eyed attitude to the world game, which may make them deserving of every barb they receive in return. But McCaw and Carter have never been like that. They do what they do with dignity and quality. In McCaw's case he has to deal constantly with pathetic jibes over his "cheating". Show me a good openside flanker who plays only by the laws and I'll show you an also-ran.
I see a man with very nearly the complete skill-set for the job he does. You could quibble and ask for a bit more in the line-out, but that would probably come at the cost of McCaw's world-beating ability to reach the breakdown at the optimum time and with the optimum body position. His skills in those claustrophobic and frantic exchanges are unrivalled, making every muscle twitch and split-second decision work to his side's advantage. We can castigate referees for not penalising him more often or more harshly. But as McCaw pointed out in a recent interview, he gets a sense early in a match what a referee is going to do and plays accordingly: the man-god laughs in the face of those hapless, mortal whistlers!
The extra fascination from an England perspective is that Johnson's team may find themselves in the way of McCaw, Carter and company winning next year's World Cup (snigger if you wish but we know which of the two teams has been in the last two finals). If England finish second in their Pool, they will almost certainly meet the All Blacks in the quarter-finals. If England win their Pool and reach the final, you would expect the All Blacks to be in Auckland waiting for them.
You would imagine that Johnson, with his background of playing for King Country as a young man, and having a Kiwi wife and two presumably dual-qualified children, is not a paid-up member of the jingoistic mob. Even so, an item near the top of the England manager's to-do list for 2011 will be to inflict more pain on these greats of the game. If it isn't England, then Australia, South Africa or France will fancy having their say. It looms as possibly the last challenge of Richie McCaw's career, and his reputation in perpetuity will depend on how he deals with it.
Hugh Godwin is a rugby writer for the Independent on Sunday