All Black talisman McCaw poised for coronation as greatest skipper
Published 23/10/2015 | 02:30
"McCaw's imagination and attention to detail are as inspiring as the feats he has produced since he first went into Test combat against Ireland in late 2001. His powerful mind is strapped to an unyielding frame which has seen off most rivals"
New Zealand Herald senior rugby writer Wynn Gray, who penned the above paean to Richie McCaw, might have revisit his definitive list of the 100 greatest All Blacks if they complete back-to-back titles tomorrow week.
When he compiled it last year, Gray - who has covered the world's best team for almost 30 years - placed Jonah Lomu and Sean Fitzpatrick above the current skipper.
Victory over South Africa at Twickenham tomorrow and a final win could change all that.
It is a journey that began in what's now known as McCaw country. Situated on New Zealand's South Island, Kurow is a village of 338 people that produced the greatest openside to have played the game.
As Gray mentions, the launchpad was Lansdowne Road in November 2001 and a debut performance that marked out the kid in the black scrum-cap out as a special player.
The full game is up on YouTube and it is remarkable that 19 minutes pass before he is mentioned by the BBC commentators, and even then they called him Richie McCann.
He was welcomed to Test rugby by a thundering Eric Miller hit, before he got a shot in to stop a Brian O'Driscoll break himself, but once he got to the pitch of it he looked like a man born for Test rugby.
"He started out in 2001 and was player of the day and he could have been player of the day in the other 142, 146 (matches) I think it is now, I've lost count, can't count past 10," his coach Steve Hansen, then assistant to John Mitchell, said yesterday.
"He's been an exceptional player and it's not only his ability to play the game it is his leadership now, he has become one of the great leaders in world rugby - particularly under pressure."
Hansen saw something different in the young Crusader who was no respecter of reputations on the training pitch.
"I was there as a coach at that time. I always felt he was always going to be a very good player," he said. "He used to antagonise the sh*t of the older guys. At training he was in the opposition and we had to pull the older guys aside to lay off him a bit because they started to get hacked off every time he pinched the ball but at the same time we had to talk to him about letting them have it.
"He's been a real good competitor from day one. The one thing he has done throughout his whole career is keep evolving.
"When he first started he couldn't catch a cold and he had four feet. His big thing he could do was pinch ball at the breakdown. Now he is a complete rugby player. He is a lineout forward, he can catch and pass and that's a testament to his ability to want to be a better player every day.
"It fits in right with the ethos; we want to be a better team every day than we were the day before."
Tomorrow, he will wear the black jersey for the 147th time and has won more caps than any player in history after surpassing O'Driscoll earlier this year.
It will be his 12th time leading New Zealand at a World Cup and no player has captained a team more at the tournament.
For all the fears that age is catching up on him, he has led from the front at the latest instalment alongside Dan Carter - so long his comrade in arms.
"He leads this team fantastically well, he is a real inspiration, a player that really motivates this side - first and foremost because of his actions," Carter says of his old Canterbury mate who he has played alongside for 94 Tests, winning 84 of them.
"At training, he's always first out there and last to leave. His work ethic is fantastic, and out on the field he's the first guy to put his body on the line. It just inspires you to do the same as he's doing.
"To have the longevity in this pretty demanding game shows his professionalism, his drive. His will and desire to play at this level is exceptional.
"I feel pretty honoured to play alongside such a legend."
Last Saturday night in the Millennium Stadium was an experience to remember as the All Blacks exorcised some demons by hammering France.
If you were in any doubt as to McCaw's standing among the huge travelling support from New Zealand, you only had to listen to the howls of derision that lifted the roof off when Louis Picamoles had the temerity to shove his fist into the All Black skipper's face as he refused to give the ball back for a quick penalty.
McCaw, of course, had conceded the penalty for hauling down a French maul on one of those rare occasions where they looked like getting into the game. When he felt the fist, he knew to stay down for treatment.
Instead of another maul, Picamoles went to the sin-bin and the Kiwis ran riot. It was cynical, it was streetwise, it was winning and nobody does it better than McCaw.
His team are, according to South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer, the greatest to have played the game. Certainly, if they beat Meyer's men tomorrow and win the final they will be the first to have defended the title.
They are also the most illegal, a team who push the laws to their limit, and their leader does that more than anyone. He gets away with murder, but what good openside doesn't?
Off the field, he cuts a statesman-like presence and sets the tone for his squad who all aspire to present a humble image of themselves.
Before the World Cup, McCaw's sponsors Beats, by Dr Dre produced one of their trademark videos about him which pictured him preparing for the World Cup in 'McCaw country', running up mountains and rehearsing the Haka.
Unlike the same company's efforts with England skipper Chris Robshaw, this one works and in it he writes on a pad 'Remember what you play for'.
McCaw has played a pivotal role in the All Black evolution from nearly men to the most consistent winners in the history of the game.
In the same video, he is asked about what's next. Unlike Carter and a host of his team-mates, he has no commitments in Europe after the tournament and nobody knows his next steps.
There is talk in France that his services are available for €700,000 a year, but nobody has yet captured the prize. Munster are on the lookout for a back-row - he'd be quite the statement signing.
He may yet retire; indeed Stuart Barnes has called for the RFU to make him an offer he can't refuse to become part of the England coaching ticket.
All that can wait, though, as McCaw focuses on lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time.
If he manages that, he will go down as the greatest captain in his sport's history.