Richie McCaw will make a decision on retirement after the Rugby World Cup final against Australia

Richie McCaw prepares to leave black hole in heart of New Zealand

Nation prays as its greatest All Black, good bloke and nightmare for opponents reaches for glory one last time in the Rugby World Cup final against Australia

Richie McCaw said he will make a decision on retirement after the Rugby World Cup final against Australia but few expect the All Black captain to carry on.

If it is the end – and it surely will be – the stage is a fitting one. Richie McCaw is trying not to approach Saturday’s World Cup final in those terms – “I will make a decision when I get back home” – but he cannot control what the whole of New Zealand is thinking. A special one-line grace is being recited at every Kiwi dinner table and it goes like this: “Lord, may the best team win but please don’t let our Richie retire with a loser’s medal.”

A different version is circulating across the Tasman – “Dear God, PLEASE tell Nigel Owens to watch bloody McCaw at the breakdown” – but they are two sides of the same personalised coin. Rugby union has known few doughtier competitors than the All Black captain and, should he become the first person to guide his side to two consecutive World Cup triumphs, it will merely underline that fact. If, alternatively, Australia ruin the flanker’s prospective finale, it will prove once and for all that sentiment does not shape the outcome of rugby matches.

McCaw, as everyone knows, is just one of numerous All Blacks preparing for their last stand. Dan Carter and Conrad Smith are off to play Top 14 rugby in France, the injured Tony Woodcock has already worn the silver fern for the final time and Keven Mealamu, set to feature in his 132nd Test, is also about to qualify for entry to “Dunhookin”, that boisterous rest home for retired international No2s.

Whether McCaw likes it or not, however, it is he who is destined to leave the biggest hole. This is the man who has led the All Blacks from the depths of World Cup despair in 2007 to the golden glow of 2011 glory and beyond. He has yet to confirm his intentions after Saturday night but, with his 35th birthday looming in December and the Crusaders having left him off their roster for next season, his battered body is finally within sight of some respite.

On the eve of his 148th Test – he will also be equalling Jason Leonard’s record of 22 World Cup appearances – his coach Steve Hansen has absolutely no doubt his captain ranks among the all-time greats: “I think he’s probably the greatest player we’ve ever had play the game,certainly for New Zealand. He is also now probably one of the great leaders of all time. And he’s a good bloke, so you’ve got the trifecta.”

Hansen also argued that the best leaders are not born but instead forged in the crucible of intense disappointment, from which they subsequently learn. McCaw is a prime example of the latter breed but has been around long enough to know the week of a World Cup final is not the moment to mull over future plans.

“I’ve purposefully not gone into that,” he said. “I want to make sure I don’t get all hung up on what this tournament may or may not be. I’ve made no secret I’ll have to reflect on things but I just want to do this week right.”

If anyone has earned that luxury, it is McCaw, who made his Test debut in 2001 but has not been as consistently revered in the northern hemisphere as he is at home. There might be an element of jealousy involved but to some degree it reflects the media priorities of the organisation he represents. When they tour in Europe, the All Blacks spend most of their time in top-table isolation, communicating largely in soundbites and making corporate commitments a priority. It makes it desperately hard to humanise the black-shirted machine, which is possibly the intention.

The estimable McCaw, consequently, is mostly known for the way he plays – relentlessly hard, unflashy, on the edge – rather than as the staggeringly driven good egg that Kiwis know and love. Only those who have read his autobiography, published in 2012, will be alert to the rounded, intelligent man whose relentless hunger for self-improvement jostles with a love of gliding and South Island rural life.

Such things are clearly secondary at this precise moment, as New Zealand seek to outflank a Wallabies team with a spring in their step. The All Blacks have named an unchanged starting XV, with Nehe Milner-Skudder passed fit to start on the wing, but Wyatt Crockett is once again an absentee from the bench after breaking down in training.

As long as it yields the right result, the manner in which the defending champions play is seen as largely irrelevant. “I don’t really care how the game is as long as we win,” said McCaw, whose desire to represent his country with distinction has never wavered. “You grow up wanting to be an All Black, that’s the dream. I remember the first time I did it, I didn’t want that moment to end. Once you get past that it’s about leaving some of yourself in that jersey. That’s what being an All Black requires; you add to what’s gone before you. You don’t want to let it down.”

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