Unbreakable

In the last issue of SA Rugby magazine, Richie McCaw talks about beating the British and Irish Lions and his plans to nail the Boks. Marc Hinton reports.

Richie McCaw gets knocked about a lot, that much is already abundantly clear in his still burgeoning rugby career. The last 12 months or so have been tumultuous for this impressive 24 year old.

His transcendent career was thrown into a tail-spin about a year ago when a head clash in the first Test against England in Dunedin eventually knocked him out of the entire domestic Test season.

Headaches, dizziness, sleeplessness, listlessness, you name it, McCaw suffered it as he battled to shake off the niggardly noggin. There were even suggestions that the situation could be career-threatening and certainly McCaw went through a bleak period himself when frustration and pure fear of the unknown had him doubting his own prospects. Over and over he was asked when he would return and he lived his own Groundhog Day of frustration.

Finally he was withdrawn and left to go away and rehabilitate on his own terms. Eventually, the fogginess cleared and, even more remarkably, the flanker was able to return mid-campaign to lead Canterbury to the NPC title in singular fashion. He was back and seemingly as good as ever, with three Test appearances in November with the touring All Blacks more than confirming his recovery.

Then this year it happened again when irresistible force (McCaw) met immovable object (Bulls prop Richard Bands). The resultant impact left the Crusaders’ skipper flattened and knocked clear into the next day. The sight of him being stretchered from the field, prone and almost lifeless, was a scary one indeed. It was enough, also, to have Graham Henry anxiously dialling South Africa.

As it turned out, it looked worse than it was. CT scans cleared McCaw of any serious damage and this Oamaru-born, Dunedin-educated, Christchurch-domiciled young man was then wrapped well and truly in cotton wool as the recovery process began – again. In the end it was five weeks before he was back on the field – off the bench for the round-robin closer against the Hurricanes – and six before he had the familiar No 7 on his back for the rematch semi-final.

It was a deliberately ‘conservative’ policy, designed to both minimise any potential risks and allow McCaw the luxury of returning on his own terms, in his own time. It allowed the All Black vice-captain to play an influential part in the Test series win against the Lions.

‘I had a pretty good knock, so I had to make sure it was 100% right,’ says McCaw. ‘It was pretty tough, especially sitting in the stands and seeing what’s going on. But it was a good perspective and, like I said last year, watching certainly makes you realise you want to be out on the field.’

At the time, Crusaders coach Robbie Deans said it was well and truly obvious McCaw was ready for his return to the field. ‘It’s bloody scary watching him,’ said the coach after a midweek training session. ‘The volume of work he’s doing, not only in terms of exertions, but also some of the contact work, is staggering. He’s all over the park, knocking his team-mates around and he’s a bloody menace.’

That ‘menace’ was then set loose in more productive circumstances. The class of the man was lit up in neon on his return to the starting line-up in the Crusaders’ 47-7 victory over the Hurricanes as he made a huge impact, both around the track and in the battle at the breakdown. Likewise, he was a major contributor as the Crusaders annexed their fifth Super 12 title against the Waratahs a week later.

Deans never fails to marvel at the full package that McCaw brings to the field, from his stout defence, his usefulness at line-out time, to his improving ball-running game and that nonpareil ability to snaffle ball on the deck. There are few, if any, better exponents of that magical movement from making the tackle to getting to your feet to play for the ball.

‘What you see on game day from Richie is what he puts into his preparation,’ says Deans. ‘It’s no surprise for us because we observe his preparation. He certainly doesn’t disappoint.’

With all due respect to Marty Holah, the importance of McCaw’s inclusion in the No 7 jersey against the Lions was vital.

He is out-and-out the best player in the All Blacks. A world-class forward whose effectiveness literally swings matches, McCaw is nowadays the first player Graham Henry writes down on his team sheet.
Former All Black skipper Reuben Thorne, who has been alongside McCaw for much of his remarkable career, hasn’t seen any better in his 10 years of provincial, Super 12 and Test rugby. ‘He’s a pretty amazing man. He did it last year as well when he had that break and came back in to the NPC and played as if he’d never been away. It was the same this time. He was fresh and came back and just tore straight into it.’

‘He’s got the whole lot there,’ adds the Crusaders vice-captain. ‘He’s a good line-out forward, a great lifter and jumper, he can carry the ball up as strongly as anyone and at the breakdown I don’t think there’s anyone better at the moment.’

It’s at the breakdown where McCaw truly excels. He treads a fine line between legality and the harsh shrill of the whistle with the referee’s arm raised skyward. It’s a balancing act McCaw says he is constantly trying to perfect in an area as subjective as any in the game.

‘It’s something I’m always working on,’ he says. ‘Sometimes when the opposition are taking you out and you don’t feel in the game, that’s when you start giving away penalties because you’re chasing everything. Whereas when you’re into a game and other things are going right, you just pick your moment. I think it’s all about picking your moment. If refs see you every time in there off your feet, they’ll start pinging you. But if it’s just once every now and again, they’ll probably say they don’t really know who’s doing what and let you get away with it.’

The sight of McCaw with a distressed look on his face proclaiming his innocence as a referee blows him for an illegality is an increasingly common one. But, again, the perfectionist admits it’s an area he has to accept some culpability in.

‘Most of the time, I feel like I’m doing all right and I get all angry at the ref or angry at what happened. But later I’ll look at the tape and think “ah, I see why he penalised me there”. It’s that fine line and what’s so great about rugby, because you’re always contesting [possession].’

He’s certainly an impressive package these days. At 24, McCaw’s now into his fifth full season of top rugby and there’s a growing leadership and maturity about the fellow that sits so comfortably on those broadening shoulders. He has already succeeded Thorne as the Canterbury and Crusaders leader, and it is only a matter of time before he takes the top job in the All Blacks.

Richie’s thoughts

ON WEARING THE ALL BLACK JERSEY
‘When I first put it on, it was the guys who were my heroes who’d played in that jersey: Michael Jones, Josh Kronfeld, Kel Tremain. Guys who everyone talks about and here I was wearing the same jersey. That makes it very special. I played my first game in Ireland. The All Blacks were known as one of the best teams in the world. People especially in the UK looked up to them. It was pretty amazing. I couldn’t eat my brekky or lunch that day. As soon as I got out on the field, I went real calm. Doing the haka and during the anthems, I couldn’t wait.’

ON COPING WITH THE PRESSURE
‘We put pressure on ourselves. Because the expectation is so high with the All Blacks, when you lose, you let a lot of people down. That’s something in the future we’ve got to get away from. There’s no point in carrying it with you. That’s when it’s tough, it’s right in your face.’

ON DEMANDING ALL BLACK FANS
‘Generally, people are pretty supportive. What frustrates me most after a loss is that you get someone coming up and telling you why you lost, why you played badly. You sort of feel they don’t understand.’

ON HIS OUTSIDE INTERESTS
‘I went to Lincoln to do an agricultural science degree. I’m going to try to get part of it finished in the next couple of years. Things that keep me amused outside of rugby: I’m into flying, I’ve got my pilot’s licence. It’s footy and flying, and a bit of fishing and diving, anything like that outdoors. A lot of people would see that as a great life.’

ON STAYING HUMBLE
‘I live with a couple of guys who aren’t in the footy scene – an accountant and a sales rep – and they keep me fairly real. I said to them from the start, if I ever start being a different person, come and give me a good clip around the ear. They haven’t done that yet, so …’