McCaw the master

MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day newspaper column, says Richie McCaw has earned the right to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

McCaw was asked, 48 hours before the World Cup semi-final against Australia, who the better player was: ‘David Pocock or yourself?’

McCaw said: ‘We’ll see after 80 minutes on Sunday.’

There was no sarcasm in his answer. It was the confirmation of the challenge of a (younger) player who has been the form opensider of the World Cup tournament.

Pocock was immense against SA, legally or illegally.

All brilliant opensiders operate on the fine line of public opinion and referee interpretation. McCaw has been the master for the last decade. Australia’s George Smith was brilliant and, if his knees last, Heinrich Brüssow will make a similar impression.

Former Bok captain Corne Krige was often quoted as saying the Test played within a Test between two specialist opensiders is far removed from anything the public sees on TV or at the ground. McCaw versus Pocock was huge. This was the grand master against the next generation of specialist ball-winning scavenger. At least it was sold as such in the week.

But that would be too simple.

As All Blacks coach Graham Henry pointed out: an opensider will always be the beneficiary of how good the loose trio is and also the dominance of his tight five. In this regard it wasn’t McCaw versus Pocock, it was the All Blacks versus the Wallabies and the result was more emphatic than a handbag grab-and-run. This was a full-on assault; a legal beating in which the All Blacks smashed the Wallabies in the collision and at the gainline.

I hate the term ‘the modern game’, so I’ll refer to it as the game played in 2011 where there is so much influence in referee interpretation and not always that much faith in the principle and application of the law.

What is not about interpretation, however, is who wins the gainline battle. That is where the game has become so much like rugby league. Win the physical dominance of who takes the ball in, and who makes that one metre in the tackle, and you have momentum that is so unlike the game of 10 years ago.

Back then it was about creating mismatches and having a fullback run at a prop. It was about more numbers on attack, and the laws at the breakdown forced a fight for the ball that ensured teams committed numbers to the breakdown.

Not any more.

The game played in 2011 allows teams to have rugby- league type defence. Mismatches are rare because most props look like centres and some even have more skill.

This was a game won with gain-line dominance. The Boks’ game (against Australia in the quarterfinal) was a game lost in that area.

Lineout statistics, field position and possession dominance have little bearing if the gainline collisions are lost.

Wales will attest to that. Sure, they were heroic and magnificent in playing 14 against 15 in a World Cup semi-final for 63 minutes but when you go 25 phases with the ball, don’t break a tackle, and can’t get an extra metre, then the credit has to go to the men dominating the collisions. France did that, even though they showed no such enthusiasm with the ball.

The All Blacks were so different in class and in ambition. Their defence was matched by an opening 20 minutes as good as you will see in a World Cup semi-final.

The All Blacks were brutal at every collision, and McCaw was either first with the tackle or the first man in support. He was colossal. I’ve tried, but there isn’t a superlative to do his performance justice. He has been functioning on desire, ambition and one leg at this tournament. The foot injury that kept him out of most of Super Rugby will require a further operation after the final. He has been imposing as a leader and as an ambassador for the game.

I often say we begrudge New Zealand more than we dislike McCaw because he isn’t one of ours. This is a guy who has won 90 of his 102 Tests, and 45 of them have been against Australia and SA . You had to be at Eden Park to appreciate his contribution fully.

Likewise his humility a minute from full time. To understand that one must remember the taunt directed at McCaw in the 2003 World Cup semi-final by Wallabies scrumhalf George Gregan as the All Blacks turned over the ball with a minute to go and the game lost. ‘Four more years,’ said Gregan.

With a minute to go at Eden Park on Sunday evening, referee Craig Joubert called a scrum, the crowd counted down the minute and the big screen focused on a McCaw and Wallabies scrumhalf Will Genia.

The New Zealand crowd chanted: ‘Four more years … four more years …’

‘What did he (Genia) say to you?’ asked a journalist at the press conference. ‘He said well done and I said thanks.’

No taunts of ‘four more years’.

‘It’s important we enjoy the win, get our feet back on the ground and respect the challenge of the French,’ added McCaw, whose most famous quote at this World Cup has been: ‘Every player has a World Cup moment … I’ve had two.’

New Zealand deserves this World Cup win and Richie McCaw deserves the appropriate World Cup moment.

He has earned it.