Sport Rugby

Wednesday 20 September 2017

McCaw ready to replace Irish legend as the game's spiritual leader

Kiwi star finally winning over European fans after 12 years playing on edge

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw

Gregor Paul

Finally, it seems as if Richie McCaw has won global appreciation. The All Blacks skipper hasn't always been warmly received by European audiences, who have forever questioned the legality of his work.

McCaw has never been held in the same esteem as Daniel Carter or even former greats such as Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen.

There has been grudging respect for his bravery and work rate, but widespread accusations have been made that he cheats. It has made him a difficult figure to embrace.

A year on and it feels different. Before the game in Paris a fortnight ago, when the big screen ran through the teams, resounding boos met the unveiling of McCaw – a legacy of the World Cup where the French feel McCaw (right) got away with murder in the final.

But by the final whistle, there was a sense the stadium had been won over by the skipper's tenacity and skill. He didn't incur the wrath of anyone at the breakdown, and it was the same again in England.

In Dublin tomorrow, he is expected to step further into the embrace of the global rugby public. Dublin has been good to him in the past. He made his debut at Lansdowne Road in 2001 and captained the All Blacks for the second time there in 2005.

The Irish, more than most, have understood what he is all about and their affections are likely to increase given that time is close to being called on Brian O'Driscoll – the only player in the world game of recent times who can compare with McCaw. The Leinster centre, though, has always been held closer to the heart of the European game.

McCaw is perhaps going to inherit O'Driscoll's title as the elder statesman of the world game: the man everyone respects and appreciates. The sport needs an iconic figure who demands respect and is universally seen as the guiding light and spiritual leader.

There is an appreciation that he is captain of a side that are on track to be one of the greatest in history. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is aware of the changing mood and the warmer reception from European crowds.

"I don't think they have been as boisterous about him," he said. "I don't know if that's because they don't see him as the same threat or if they don't see him doing what he used to do.

"But he's certainly playing well. I am over the moon about how well he is playing."

The game tomorrow will effectively be a changing of the guard – McCaw taking over from O'Driscoll as the father figure of the world game.

It has taken McCaw 12 years, but he's finally done it – he's finally ditched the 'cheat' tag and persuaded the rest of the world that he's a special figure indeed.

Gregor Paul is a rugby writer with the New Zealand Herald

Irish Independent

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