Schalk Burger says Richie McCaw’s longevity is nothing short of miraculous and demands the highest praise.
McCaw will become the first All Black to play 100 Tests when he takes the field in Pool A’s decisive match against France in Auckland on Saturday. The feat carries with it the same prestige as becoming a centurion for the Springboks because of the immense difficulty of the task.
To survive that long is notable enough, considering that he debuted as a 20-year-old and has had the added responsibility and pressure of captaincy. However, McCaw has done more than survive, he has excelled, setting the benchmark for openside flanks then resisting a string of challengers to his throne.
Furthermore, his value is only fully appreciated in his absence. Without him the All Blacks’ threat is significantly diluted. That is an unenviable burden to bear, but one McCaw has done with distinction.
He reaches the milestone hobbling rather than sprinting. There are concerns a foot injury that has plagued him for some time is more serious than the All Blacks’ medical staff will reveal. Certainly in recent months he has been a poor impostor of the player we know. This, however, should not detract from celebrating him.
Burger, who has duelled many times with McCaw, stressed the magnitude of the achievement should not be underestimated.
‘Any guy that has played a 100 Tests as an openside flank has something special about him simply because of the physical torture you endure,’ Burger says. ‘But McCaw isn’t any guy, he has done that with the best team in the world and while leading a nation who are obsessed and demand nothing less than victory every week. With that in mind I can appreciate how big an achievement this is.
‘And I don’t think he is done yet,’ he continued. ‘He still has more to offer. I’ve been fortunate to play against him numerous times and very rarely got the better of him. He is so determined, so unrelenting. He is one of the legends of modern day rugby. His record as captain of the All Blacks is second to none.’
It is. With McCaw at the helm of the Blacks have won 54 of 62 Tests. When you consider that 31 of those Tests have been against Australia and South Africa, widely considered to be the next best teams in world rugby, you get a deeper appreciation for the 30-year-old’s achievement. His overall record of 87 wins in 99 Tests is incredible, again bearing in mind that 34 of those wins came in 44 Tests against their southern hemisphere rivals.
However, any measure of McCaw is sterile without exploring the manner in which he has shaped the game. The great players share this trait – Victor Matfield made lineouts a science, Dan Carter redefined brilliance as a flyhalf, Fourie du Preez blended cerebral play and impossibly brilliant feel to become the standard against which other scrumhalves are measured. McCaw became the modern-day master of the dark arts of breakdown play.
‘It would be a big statement to say that one guy has been responsible for the evolution of breakdown play and by extension the improvement in defensive systems, but he has been one of the benchmark fetchers for eight or nine years, stretching over two eras – the one with George Smith as the standout and now in a new crop that includes David Pocock, Heinrich Brussow and more recently Sam Warburton,’ Burger offered.
Time and its debilitating physical and mental effects will increasingly dilute his potency. Hopefully he shows greater judgement than his Springbok counterpart John Smit has in terms of not tainting his legacy by refusing to acknowledge he can no longer meet the demands of Test rugby.
When that time comes he will hope to have secured the one title that still eludes him and the one some believe will define him. This is nonsense. Being a World Cup winning captain should never take precedence over what he has achieved in the cycles between the global showpiece. And it is in that period that he has largely been without peer as a player and leader.
Great is a word too readily ascribed to mediocre players. It is, however, the only word befitting McCaw.
By Ryan Vrede, in Auckland
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