Thursday, April 05, 2007

Marc Hinton's Article in NZ Rugby World

TEN YEARS, TWO CAPTAINS
And Some Special Memories

Over the next eight pages we’re celebrating 100 issues, and 10 years of NZ Rugby World. So we thought what better way than to bring together the two All Black skippers who started and ended that decade, Sean Fitzpatrick, meet Richie McCaw. Men, let’s share some memories.

Story: Marc Hinton

Admiration is a two-way street, and it’s certainly a busy thoroughfare as we gather the captains of the two best All Black teams of the past decade to take a trip down memory lane. Sean Fitzpatrick is an unabashed admirer of the side that Graham Henry will take to the World Cup later this year, and it turns out that current skipper Richie McCaw drew much of his inspiration as a raw young rugby talent from the deeds of Fitzy and Co over that golden two-year run of 1996-1997.

Indeed, it’s a special sort of symmetry we have going on as NZ Rugby World summons Fitzpatrick and McCaw for a kind of retrospective chat to cover off the last 10 years, as part of our 100 issue celebrations. We’re looking back on the period 1997-2007 – the lifespan of this magazine – in which Fitzpatrick’s team set a mighty standard to start it, and of course McCaw’s men end it as the unrivalled No 1 side in the world just a few months out from the World Cup.

And there’s more that links these two protagonists in our tale of two captains. Dig a little deeper and the two terams that led/lead in their prime bear some fairly vivid similarities. For starters they were a splendid and heady mix of dazzling entertainment and deadly precision. They possession men of such talent they could draw the breath from you like a professional killer, yet they also had their fair share of hulking artisans from whose broad hands the edifice was carved.

In other words, they had their Robin Brookes, and their Christian Cullens. Their Carl Haymans as well as their Sitiveni Sivivatus. Sometimes, they even had men who could combine the whole damn lot, such as their Zinzan Brookes or their Richie McCaws.

Sandwiching a time in our rugby, it has to be said, that featured some of the worst of times, these twin eras of Fitzpatrick and McCaw have been assuredly the best. Sure, there has been the pain of 1998 and, particularly, ’99, the wasted years of 2000-01, and then the false dawn of 2003 that in the end just turned into another World Cup nightmare.

But do you recall Fitzpatrick’s team of 1996-97? They lost one test in two seasons (that, a dead rubber in an historic series victory in South Africa) and were so flaming good their opponents were known to perform victory laps just because they’d finished within 20 of them. For two years, with an other-wordly mix of hardened, ruthless veterans and ascendant young virtuosos, they were nigh on untouchable. And, then, as a few old hands departed stage left, it all came crashing down (but that’s another story).

It has taken awhile, but eventually a team of near identical ilk has been built. And though McCaw is at the helm now, he owes a lot to the skipper who sailed the first few leagues of the journey, a fellow by the name of Tana Umaga. But now, again, we have an All blacks side ruling the world. In the last two seasons, they have lost twice (both in South Africa) and have assembled a frightening record of dominance, studded by some performances that have redefined the art of winning Test rugby.

So there they are, those two splendid skippers, one now happily living in England, enjoying the fruits of his retirement with his lovely wife and children, and the other very much with his sleeves still rolled up and carving a reputation for himself as amongst the very, very best we’ve ever had.

Or, more to the point, here they are. Let’s hear from them as we review the rollercoaster ride that’s been the last 10 years of New Zealand rugby.

Sean, you first. Reflect for us, if you will, on that special team of yours that reach a peak over those two years from 1996-97?

I suppose for me it starts in 1995, or even in ’94 when we’d just lost to the French and were rated about No 5 or 6 in the world. I still remember coming together in Queenstown with Laurie Mains and coming up with a plan that was going to win the World Cup. We wanted to be the fittest and fastest team in the world. We trained like we’d never trained before, and became the fittest and fastest team. Maybe at the end of the day[at the ’95 World Cup] against the South Africans, after everything that happened, the food poisoning and that sort of stuff, maybe we just lacked a bit of strength. At the end of that I was going to retire. I can still remember making a speech at the dinner saying this team would go on to become on of the greatest All Black teams. Then I thought, ’why don’t you want to be part of that?’ [Christian] Cullen came in, and it did, it just went from strength to strength. We obviously had a bit of unfinished business in ’96 on the tour to South Africa, and by ’97 we were just a fully matured machine really.

It reminded me of the way the team from ’87 developed. As good as the team was in ’87, by ’88 and ’89 it was by far the best team in the world. It had very similar sort of personnel really, people who developed into key players, guys like Warwick Taylor, Craig Green, Bruce Deans, Richard Loe, Murray Pierce. They were good, good All Blacks who just did their jobs and ’96 and ’97 were very similar – we had players at the peak of their powers, and they all contributed. They were world XV players. That’s how you judge the greatness of teams, and I’m sure you’re the same Richie, if you look at this team how many of these guys would you have in your world XV?

Richie, you must have been, what, a teenager at Otago Boys High in Dunedin, when Sean’s team burst into our consciousness. What were your recollections of that era?

When I think back, there was as a group of guys who’d been around and played a hell of a lot of rugby. And it seemed like they were the ones that every week were the reaons the All Blacks performed. When you think of Sean, Zinzan Brooke, Frank Bunce, they were the guys, and then they had the youth, the Marshalls and Kronfelds who played well around them. But these guys were doing the job. That’s what I saw. There were some pretty exciting sort of characters in there. There were some games they could have lost but they ended up winning – and that’s the sign of a team that knew how to do that.

Sure, can you describe the sort of impact they made on you as an impressionable young guy watching?

Just think of the things like a Zinzan Brooke taking a drop for goal. They backed themselves. They never every took a back ward step, that’s what I remember. I guess I had a fair interest in loose forwards like Josh Kronfeld. He was the sort of guy around that time, when I was in the sixth form at school playing 7, I tried to model myself on a wee bit. When you look at them they’d won pretty much all their games both those years, and when they got to ’98 and they lost a couple it was sort of like ‘what’s going on here? They’re losing and that doesn’t happen!’ The feeling I had in ’97 was if they turned up they’d win. That was the way you felt.

Sean, what stands out for you when you think back to those two dominant seasons of 96-97?

After Laurie had done such a fantastic job and really moulded that team, the way John Hart took over the reins and was prepared to sit back and let the players take a bit of control. The way he did that got the Zinzan Brookes and those sort of guys to buy into what he was trying to do. On that ’96 tour of South Africa it was phenomenal to achieve what we did in such a bloody hard place to tour. I can still remember walking off the field and Don Clark was standing in the tunnel crying, saying ‘thank you so much for doing what we’ve been trying to do for years.’ In ’96 it was the game against Australia when we beat them 43-6 in Wellington, then the tour, then coming home and not really appreciating till then what it meant to New Zealanders.

What about ’97, when you didn’t lose a test? In some ways you must remember that year more for the tour which signaled the end of your career?

Probably that’s what stands out for me…but there was the Tri Nations, back to back wins in Christchurch and Melbourne, then coming to Dunedin and winning both trophies. For a number of us it was the end of the road really, even though some of them hung in there for another year or two.

Do you see similarities with this group Graham has now with the All Blacks?

There’s a lot of leadership in that team now that wasn’t there a couple of years ago, and that’s crucial. Richie’s the captain, but there’s a lot of other captains there helping make decisions. It’s what he needs. I think by taking a couple of key players out as Graham has done, with the likes of Carlos, Andrew Mehrtens and Marshall, he’s brought it back to a level where everyone is on the same wavelength. I see a team that is totally dedicated to winning, and to being the best they can be. They’re proud to see the way they turn out week-in, week-out, and they take a lot of pride in their jersey.

Richie, what sort of a legacy did Sean leave as an All Black captain?

He was a tough bugger, and out on the field he just didn’t take a backward step. And he played every week because that was the way it happened back then. In South Africa they all hated him and hated him because he was good at what he did. Looking from the outside in, as captain he really knew what he had to do to get his job done and because of that everyone followed him.

And he was a pretty good skipper by the end of it, wasn’t he?

He was. He’d probably admit himself it took a while to get used to that. But he hung in there, and at the end he’s obviously learnt a lot along the way because he was pretty damned good at what he did.

Do you see any parallels between the settled side of ’96-97 and the group you lead now?

We’ve got a group of senior guys who have played a lot of rugby now – last year we had the most capped All Black team ever to take the field – which shows the guys have been around for a while. That was the same back in ’96-97.

And you both feature some pretty good game-breakers.

Exactly, I guess the difference is we’ve got more than just 15. We’ve got 30-odd players at least in New Zealand capable of fronting up on the day. That’s a huge positive. As opposed to when those guys moved on at the end of ’97 and left a big hole to fill, hopefully we’ll have enough guys with experience to just carry on.

Sean, what’s your assessment of the All Blacks as they enter the World Cup year?

It’s totally different from our day. This is the first All Black team ever that has been totally prepared for a World Cup…Graham has been given a brief to win the World cup, and he started that two or three years ago by picking the Carters, McCaws. He took a major risk that in the old days wouldn’t have been tolerated. He was lucky that he beat Wales 25-24 (in 2004) and was able to keep going. Maybe if he’d lost that game everyone would have said ‘hey, what’s going on here?’ To play one team one week and another the next was unheard of. But his whole brief is to win the World Cup. To take 22 players out of a Super 14 is unheard of. We’ve got such an advantage. You look at the way these guys up here are bashing into each other every week, then we see the All Blacks are 20 % better than what they were last year.

Richie, in what way do the semifinal defeats of ’99 and ’03 figure in your thinking? The latter clearly has left an imprint.

That ’99 semi was a game perhaps we shouldn’t have lost because of the lead but it showed that without guys like Fitzy, who just knew how to make sure things like that didn’t happen, that it could happen. I can understand how it can happen and that’s when you miss the experience of those guys…the main thing out of ’99, was because of that we had coaches change, and personnel changing right through from ‘99 to ’03, and there wasn’t really any settled team.

What about 2003 in Sydney? That must be a powerful part of your motivation, and everyone else’s that was there, for this year?

It just didn’t feel that we performed that day. You’ve got to give the Aussies some credit because they came out and played. If we had played to our best, we would have been as good, but we didn’t and that was the disappointing part. But we’d had quite a few changes in personnel, we’d had a change in coach a year or so before, and that was just the way it was for a while – there was nothing really settled in the All Blacks.

There must be so many highlights, Richie, what are your standout memories since you became an All Black in 2001?

You always remember your first test – it’s when you first feel like an All Black and it’s something no one can ever take away from you. It’s just a hugely satisfying thing for me to be part of where we’ve got to now with the All Blacks. That’s what I find really satisfying. But in terms of individual tests, a couple I guess spring to mind. That test against the Lions in Wellington, I seem to remember that one, and the year before 2004 in Paris. They were the start of where this team has got to now, sort of the first stake in the sand. There’s been others – big wins over South Africa and Australia two weeks in a row in 2003, they were special individual performances, whereas the one in Lyon [last year] was a real team effort.

Gents, just to finish on, reflect on the last decade of professionalism and how you think the game’s tracking?

Sean: In New Zealand we’d have to be pretty happy in terms of the standard of rugby. One thing I suppose is the national championship is not getting any stronger, and I suppose professionalism has probably affected South Africa and New Zealand the most in that area, and helped other countries, especially Australia. But in general we’ve come to terms with the day-in, day-out life of a rugby player, and I think the whole life after rugby thing has been handled pretty well.

Richie: The game’s changed a lot in that 10 years. The skills that are out there now are quite phenomenal really, and we’ve got big, powerful guys who can play with the ball. Perhaps there has to be some thinking of how we go forward with the game.

That’s going to take a lot of talk and compromise and when that happens, I don’t know. That’s the next part that’s going to evolve, and once we get that right everyone will know exactly where they are. At the moment no one’s too sure if it’s going to be the same in five years. But that’s the thing with sport – it’s always evolving.

old pics of the two protagonists...sorry!
Fitzy in 1993 - Richie in 2003

****
no translation so far but thanks a lot to JRM and Rose ;)
pas de traduction pour le moment. Merci beaucoup a JRM et Rose ;)

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