Sport Rugby

Thursday 14 December 2017

McCaw comes full circle as latest Dublin trip bookends epic journey to becoming a 'Great All Black'

Success of farmer's son from Canterbury is a staggering story of achievement from first cap at Lansdowne Road

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw

Steve James

It is late 1998. Lunch is being taken in Timaru, a port town in South Canterbury in New Zealand. It is a family affair, just before Christmas.

A rugby union player approaching his 18th birthday is very excited. He has been selected for the New Zealand U-19 trials, and he has been given a training programme in preparation for those trials in late January.

He shows the programme to his uncle. "You want to be in the New Zealand U-19s?" his uncle asks. "Do you want to be an All Black?"

The answer is in the affirmative. Every young New Zealand boy wants to be an All Black. This one had done so long before the time when, as a 12-year-old, his father told him to lose weight.

Or rather he did not actually say that. He told the young man that he would enjoy his rugby so much more if he got himself fitter. The penny dropped; an object lesson in paternal guidance.

Anyway, at lunch the uncle grabs a pen and takes a napkin. Together with the young man, he charts a plan. They mark down the route to becoming an All Black. By 2004 they reckon that goal can be reached.

"All Blacks 2004," is written on the napkin.

But the uncle is not finished. He wants his nephew to be more; to become a great All Black. He hands the youngster the napkin, asking to sign on it "Great All Black".

The lad takes the napkin and pen, but he cannot write that.

He is far too modest.

He merely writes 'G A B' and slips the napkin into his pocket. He takes it home to the family farm, pinning it high on a cupboard where he could see it, but no one else could.

By 2001, that young man had been capped by the All Blacks, making his debut in a 40-29 victory over Ireland in Dublin, despite the former All Black openside flanker, Josh Kronfeld, then at Leicester, saying dismissively of his selection after just 17 National Provincial Championships matches for Canterbury: "You might as well just give All Black jerseys to everybody."

On Sunday, he returned to where it all began, in Dublin. It was his 124th Test, and, like his debut when New Zealand were 21-7 down just after half-time, it was a tumultuous occasion.

This time it was 22-7 at half-time, and it required a remarkable finale for New Zealand to prevail 24-22 and preserve their 100pc calendar-year record, the first side in the professional era to do so.

Yes, Richie McCaw has done rather well. It is safe to state that he has become a 'G A B'. He has now won 110 Tests, with one draw, for an 89.11pc winning record. It was his 87th as captain, of which he has won 77.

It is a staggering achievement of success. Little wonder then that New Zealand had the self-belief and calmness to fashion such a fantastic try at the death in Dublin.

But what is easy to forget is the expectation that comes with such success, and the heights to which opponents, such as Ireland, will raise their game in an attempt to beat the best. And so on the rare occasions when New Zealand do slip up unexpectedly, the fallout can be emotional.

Take the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final, when they controversially lost to France in Cardiff.

"Angry. Devastated. P***** off. Frustrated. Despondent. Angry. Remorseful.

"Did I say angry?" That was how McCaw articulated his feelings afterwards in his excellent autobiography, 'The Real McCaw'.

It was in that moment that wins like Sunday's were forged. He found himself asking the crucial question "What would a G A B do?" The answer was to make sure that he won the next World Cup.

And such was his desire to do just that, he did so on one leg. He put in some phenomenal performances in the latter stages of the tournament with a broken bone in his foot.

The final was won only 8-7 by a side gripped with fear, but McCaw dragged his men over the line.

"I realise I've been in a tunnel for four years," he said, "pushing away anything and anyone who wasn't going to help me get to that point of light at the end."

And, ever since, darkness has only descended once (a loss to England last year) in 28 matches, mainly with a true G A B at the helm. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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