Soon no one, not even those fixated with his supposed capacity to operate outside the laws, will be able to deny that Richie McCaw is the greatest player of the professional age.
Maybe even by later tonight that will be the case as McCaw will play his 141st test and join Brian O’Driscoll as the most capped player in history.
His already impressive statistics collection will become phenomenal as a result. The only man to cap a test side 100 times; a win ratio of 89 per cent; a World Cup winner’s medal which he won with a broken foot and the equal most-capped player in history.
McCaw, since his debut in 2001, has won 124 tests and to put his success into some kind of context, England have taken four years longer to accumulate the same number of wins. Ireland have to go back to 1993 for their tally to reach McCaw’s and Scotland have taken 35 years to achieve the same goal.
He, of course, is not one to care much for such landmarks. Not at the moment anyway because there is only one statistic he wants to add to his collection — and that is to become the first player to captain a side to successive World Cups.
Nothing else really matters to McCaw. “It means I am still around so I think that says one thing,” he says of equalling the record. “I am certainly proud that I am still here after all these years and I’m playing well enough to be in the team.
“The one thing I have always said is that it is not just about racking up the numbers: it is about what you do each time you are on the field so each time you put in a performance that is worthy of what you need to give. Hopefully I’ll play as well as I ever have; that is the goal and if I do, I can sit back with a smile on my face.”
Richie McCaw and Dan Carter make for one of the greatest ever All Black duos. Photo / Getty
But McCaw won’t get away without his achievement being noted by his teammates. They are becoming conscious that time is running out and that the day is coming when McCaw won’t be with them.
There’s also an emphasis this year on making sure the team lives in the moment and takes the time to enjoy their victories.
As much as the rest of the squad shares McCaw’s desire to win the World Cup this year, there is no need to be in an unseemly rush to get there and ignore the little moments along the way.
They also want to pat the captain on the back once or twice before they get to England. They want to celebrate the team’s driving force. And that is what McCaw is — he is the man whose influence can’t be exaggerated.
“He’s the bar,” says All Black blindside flanker Jerome Kaino. “We are always looking at him week in, week out. We ask what needs to be done and then we look at what he does.
“When he’s gone the guys are going to have to pick up and know the standard. At the moment we have got it pretty good because there is someone setting that standard every day.”
There hasn’t been an All Black captain in the modern era who has been universally admired and respected in the same way as McCaw.
Richie McCaw in 2002, his first season with the All Blacks. Photo / Getty
In all likelihood, there probably hasn’t been any captain in world rugby who has demanded the same respect and admiration as McCaw.
The closest would be O’Driscoll, the man with whom, for a week at least, he’ll share the caps record.
A rare talent; an astute leader; bright, articulate, inspirational, O’Driscoll was an undoubted giant of the game.
But his star faded in periods, particularly in his latter years, and for all that he put into his green jersey, O’Driscoll didn’t quite deliver the same relentless excellence as McCaw.
For all that opponents were aware of the danger he posed, O’Driscoll wasn’t held in quite the same esteem.
“I was in awe … still am,” says Kaino of his emotions when he first came into the All Blacks and saw McCaw close up. “Everything he did, I just wanted to keep an eye on to see what made him perfect. To see what makes him Richie McCaw. I followed around to see what he does so I could add it to the way I did things.
“Even now I still feel I need to prove myself not only to Richie but guys like Dan [Carter] and Kev [Mealamu]. What makes me tick is proving to my team — especially Richie — that I do belong here. That I am good enough to be an All Black.”
Kaino speaks for the entire squad, all of whom have a story to tell about the skipper. For most, it’s the nervousness they first felt coming into the team and meeting McCaw, properly, for the first time.
Julian Savea even revealed he thought he was going to be sick in his first week as an All Black, such were his nerves at the prospect of being in McCaw’s company.
Others, such as Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua, revealed that whatever they thought they knew about the skipper changed entirely after they actually played a test alongside him. His intensity and commitment blew them away — made them both see exactly how far they had to go.
And for Ben Smith it was the game in Ireland two years ago, when the All Blacks pulled off that greatest escape of all time, that he saw the depth of McCaw’s qualities.
“What I learned from it was his cool, calm approach in a situation that was pretty sticky for him at the time,” says Smith. “The way he went about getting the team back into that game. His messages were clear. He didn’t panic and he had the faith that we had the right skills to get back into that game and the right temperament.
“There have been a lot of situations like that where it is his demeanour that shows that he’s purely focused on the job at hand and he’ll do anything to direct the team.”
In the past two years there have been sporadic bursts of public McCaw-bashing. There was an intense period in March-April this year when his form was barely so-so with the Crusaders.
The questions came: was he past it? Had his amazing engine finally packed up? Were the All Blacks going to make a dreadful mistake taking someone his age to the World Cup to play in the most demanding position?
McCaw’s peers barely noticed the furore and those who did smiled and shook their heads.
Their faith was vindicated in Samoa when 14 All Blacks wilted in the heat but one ran and tackled for 80 minutes, barely pausing for breath. Again, they were proven right to believe 10 days later when McCaw clambered all over the Pumas and a week later, with the All Blacks hanging by a thread in the final 20 minutes at Ellis Park, the captain’s decision to go for their “trick” lineout move saw them home.
Not for one second have the players doubted their captain. Not for one second has any All Black been uncertain about the importance of McCaw or, in particular, how much he will bring to the World Cup campaign.
The tournament essentially comes down to the team that best handles the pressure. It’s about calm in the maelstrom. It’s about fire in the blood, ice in the brain. It’s about focus, hard work and belief — all of which McCaw brings and instils.
The All Blacks without McCaw simply wouldn’t be the same team.
“He’s so demanding of such a high level,” says Kieran Read, McCaw’s heir apparent as All Blacks captain. “Not necessarily verbally putting on guys but he’ll perform at a high level every time and he’ll meticulously plan what he needs to be doing every time which creates an edge.
“I’ll take that out of him — his work ethic is second to none. As a leader you have to be in the mind-set of leading the way and not to ever ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.”
– NZ Herald
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