At rare intervals during his captain’s run on Friday, Richie McCaw could be seen allowing himself a few last lingering glances around Eden Park.
The All Blacks’ citadel, rising like a spaceship from Auckland’s southwest suburbs, is his idea of consecrated ground. For it was here, one late winter’s night in 2011, that he won a World Cup final in spite of torn ligaments in his ankle. It is in this stadium, too, where he will today eclipse Brian O’Driscoll’s record to become the most capped international in history, with 142 Test appearances. He would not be human if some emotion did not flicker behind that granite-like façade.
Aptly, it is a Test match of great significance in itself that will announce McCaw’s unparalleled feat. New Zealand must beat Australia on Saturday night to preserve a 29-year unbeaten record against their trans-Tasman rivals in Auckland, and to retain the Bledisloe Cup that lies precariously poised after last weekend’s shock 27-19 defeat in Sydney. Defeat is unconscionable, not simply for the wound it would inflict on All Blacks’ pride but for how it could shake their confidence ahead of next month’s World Cup defence. For that reason, McCaw is content to sacrifice any celebration of his personal landmark for the greater good.
“I haven’t allowed myself to be caught up in that, because I wanted to train as hard as I could to play well,” he said. “When you have that focus, you don’t get caught up in those what-might-bes. I want to enjoy playing here, and when you have a loss like last week’s it makes you want to play even more. The key, coming off a poor performance, is to let it fuel you. But that alone isn’t going to work. We have to do things right this week.
Despite their humbling by their Wallabies, the All Blacks appeared united here by the conviction that they would not permit a repeat. McCaw and fellow back-row titan Kieran Read, both exposed in that strangely listless display at ANZ Stadium seven days ago, have alluded this week to the ferocity of training sessions as the team seek to retain a Bledisloe Cup that they have held since 2003.
Eden Park has been the scene of many a New Zealand bounceback, not least last year, when a 12-12 draw was emphatically accounted for in the next Test, as they dealt Australia a 31-point trouncing. So blinkered is McCaw, he does not intend his farewell to his favourite amphitheatre to end any other way.
If the flanker is typically reticent about his own accomplishment in reaching 142 Tests, his companions in the pantheon summoned effusive tributes for him. George Gregan, third in the all-time longevity stakes behind McCaw and O’Driscoll, said: “It speaks volumes about you as a player and as a person, as well as your consistency and your ability to be so resilient. Rugby as a game is so much better for having you in it.”
As for O’Driscoll, who retired on 141 in last year’s Six Nations, the Irishman sent a video message in which he noted, wryly: “The decent thing would have been to give me more than 18 months in which to bask in the glory of my new-found title.”
Few are more appreciative of McCaw’s dedication or humility than Steve Hansen, the All Blacks head coach, who once had to beg him to take a sabbatical for the sake of self-preservation. Talk of Saturday’s milestone, he admitted, had not filtered into any team discussion. “The ironic thing is that it has not been spoken about,” Hansen said. “That’s the way he likes it, and the way we like it.”
Lavishing praise on McCaw’s capacity for absorbing so much sustained punishment as a loose forward, he explained: “There’s a high work-rate involved in playing at openside flanker. Not too many guys get through their career without being badly injured. The thing I marvel about with Richie is that his performance, week-in, week-out, is always well into the 90s.”
Remarkably, McCaw’s overall winning percentage wearing the black jersey is close to the 90 per cent mark, too, with the latest loss to Australia just the 15th of his Test career.
Ben Smith, named at full-back for what should be a febrile rematch, promised the All Blacks would do “everything they could” to summon a performance honouring that vast body of work.
The one roadblock comes in the strategies of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, forging a formidable reputation after his bold selection in Sydney of two specialist opensides, in Michael Hooper and David Pocock, reaped handsome reward. His major experiment in Auckland is to reinstate the mercurial Quade Cooper at fly-half. “We’re the enemy here, that’s for sure,” Cheika said. “But I don’t fear failure.” On so auspicious an occasion, McCaw, however, surely does. Failure, for his sake and his team’s, cannot be countenanced at any cost.
Rugby World Cup 2015
With all 20 teams competing at this autumn's Rugby World Cup due to name their 31-man squads for the competition in the coming weeks, the Daily Telegraph has chosen the best squad from all the players competing.