'In a real selfish way I was relieved I wasn’t out there' - Richie McCaw on Ireland's famous win over the All Blacks
When Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in his last act as a professional rugby player on Oct 31, 2015, at Twickenham, it signalled the supremacy of not just the All Blacks but the southern hemisphere as a whole.
The World Cup semi-finals were an exclusively Rugby Championship affair, with the Six Nations representatives departing in varying degrees of ignominy.
Yet in the space of little over 12 months the air of despondency hanging over the north has been blown away. Unusually, all the teams are entering the Six Nations with a real sense of confidence and purpose after an autumn series in which roles were reversed. Ireland claimed the prized scalp of New Zealand in Chicago but Australia, South Africa and Argentina suffered eight defeats between them on their forays northwards.
In a career spanning 148 Tests across 14 years, McCaw lost just three times to northern-hemisphere opposition – twice to England and once to France. Yet a gap that at times seemed insurmountable has been closed in the few months that McCaw, who is back in London for the premiere of the documentary Chasing Great, has been enjoying the fruits of retirement.
“I think the autumn really showed that there’s nothing between the north and south any more,” McCaw told The Daily Telegraph. “You look at South Africa losing to Italy, Wales and England, the Aussies losing to England, New Zealand to Ireland. I actually thought there was very little between the teams before but that reinforced that.”
The signature result of that sequence was Ireland’s 40-29 victory over New Zealand. McCaw was at Solider Field, surrounded by Irish supporters who experienced the full range of emotions. “With about 20 minutes to go New Zealand had got back to four points down and all the Irish guys had their heads in their hands saying, ‘It’s happening again’,” McCaw said in reference to previous heartbreaks in 2013 and 2012.
Not this time, though, and for once McCaw was not present to comfort his former team-mates. “In a real selfish way I was relieved I wasn’t out there at the final whistle because that would not have been enjoyable in any way,” McCaw said. “Some of the skill and tries that the All Blacks have produced have been a step up from what I was involved in, but Ireland managed to stop those moments and made it tight. When they got one or two chances, they were nailing them.”
The defeat ended New Zealand’s tier-one record run of 18 successive victories, a mark that England could overtake if they complete back-to-back Grand Slams. That prospect remains a long way off, with trips to Cardiff and Dublin to come. McCaw, who was part of four New Zealand sides who won 17, 16, 15 and 15 consecutive games, can also testify to how pressure grows incrementally. “It gets a lot tougher the deeper you go,” McCaw said. “We got to 13-14-15 in a row a few times and it is not easy to keep winning in that scenario.”
There would be no bitterness on McCaw’s part on losing the record. “If they go through the Six Nations then they fully deserve every accolade that comes their way,” McCaw said. “You can’t get too attached to records. If a team is good enough to go past you then they have deserved that. It would give the next All Black team a target to aim for.”
The appointment of Eddie Jones as head coach would seem the obvious explanation for England’s transformation. Yet while acknowledging his impact, McCaw argues they were not the basket case they were portrayed after being eliminated from their own World Cup in the pool stages. “The English team at the World Cup, they definitely could have won that Welsh game,” McCaw said. “If they had won that then they would have been in the quarter-finals and I think they would have been a big force. The difference between going out in the pool rounds and being a force in the business end of the tournament is very thin.
“The second thing is that the personnel is not really that different now. It just shows what happens when you have a different voice. They would have been hurting and it does not take long to turn things around. Confidence plays a huge role as well.”
McCaw is predicting a winner-takes-all clash between Ireland and England to decide the championship on March 18. “I would be surprised if it didn’t come down to that game. It will be really tough for the English if they get to that point with their record intact. There will be a lot of pressure on them and the Irish would love to knock them over. Wouldn’t that be an amazing day?”
A further hypothetical: could Jones’s England beat New Zealand? “I really don’t know,” McCaw said. “There is very little between the teams. It is a pity they are not playing each other for so long.”
McCaw namechecks Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien, Scotland lock Jonny Gray and English centre Owen Farrell – “his confidence in directing things has been a big part of their success” – as players he expects to impress in Lions year, before adding: “The guy I am really looking forward to seeing is Sam Warburton and making the transition from being captain to just another player. You may see a completely different player without that pressure.”
In Jones’s recent interview with Brian Moore for his Full Contact show, the Australian referenced McCaw as a benchmark for his England players to follow. “When Richie McCaw first played for the Crusaders, he was an out-and-out defensive player,” Jones said. “By the end of his career he could carry, he could pass, he could do everything and that is how great players evolve.” McCaw recognises Jones’s description. “He is probably spot on there,” McCaw said. “There’s no doubt that being able to adapt and evolve with how the game is and what your team needs is hugely important. I take that as a compliment.”
Chasing Great, which follows McCaw in the last year of his career, wonderfully captures that evolution of a scrawny flanker from Otago into the greatest player of his generation. There are countless examples of his dedication surpassing other stronger, faster, more skilful players. When asked if he considered himself talented, McCaw paused before conceding he possessed one intangible gift: a premonition of where the next breakdown would occur.
“It’s seeing the picture of where the collision is happening so I’m going straight there,” McCaw said. “You are arriving as the tackle is happening. Rather than being the fastest, I’d run the shortest distance. Why certain players have that I am not sure. To me it was pretty simple. I found it easy to see but I don’t think everyone saw it like that.”