Exclusive: Philip moore meets the remarkable Richie McCaw
He’s sitting in the rain at the Dubai Exiles ground, the greatest rugby player on earth – and that’s official, as the tabloids say. All Blacks captain Richie McCaw has just been named International Rugby Board (IRB) player of the year.
Richie McCaw makes time for everyone in equal measure; kids, well-wishers, boring journos like me.
No minders, no spin doctors, no ubiquitous flaks loitering around saying things like “give me the signal and I’ll pull him” as we saw with Tiger Woods recently or PR people in hushed tones offering supposedly exclusive interviews. No-one winding up the interview.
No, Richie McCaw is the world’s greatest rugby player, he captains the world’s greatest team but, better still, he’s one of the world’s great blokes.
You don’t see much of McCaw’s smile on the field but he grins a lot off the field. He’s a people person and he loves rugby at all levels, the lore, the mateship. It’s just that he’s so infuriatingly good at it.
No matter how tough a Test match, his philosophy remains the same: “As long as it’s fun, that’s what it’s all about. That’s the reason I do it on a Saturday afternoon.”
His other passion is flying planes. He also signed on for an agricultural degree he chips away at. He’s normal. No pushing photographers, just a great love of his sport and respect for its traditions.
McCaw led the All Blacks to 11 wins from 12 tests this year and he headed a success triple for the All Blacks in the IRB awards announced in Glasgow, Scotland, last month.
It’s the progression from when he pulled on the same jersey as his heroes Michael Jones, Josh Kronfeld and Kel Tremain for his first Test, against Ireland. The young genius “couldn’t eat my brekky.” But he was calm when he got on the field. By the Haka and the anthems the muzzle and chain were off. Time to hit. Again and again and again.
Bring on the World Cup. Who cares about 80,000 people singing the Marseillaise? People baying for the blood of you and your mates. We’re the All Blacks come to rock your world. And have a yarn later. This is rugby. Saturday afternoons in Otago. The code, bro’.
You have to know rugby and know New Zealand to realise how monumental it is to skipper the All Blacks. This is rock star-status and more. The off-field responsibilities are immense, including media, sponsorship and public commitments.
None of it is a chore to McCaw. He loves being an All Black skipper and if people want a piece of him, that’s just fine.
But the first priority is “doing the job on Saturday afternoon.”
It’s all All Blacks at the moment. The All Blacks were pronounced Team of the Year for the second consecutive year and head coach, Graham Henry, took the Coach of the Year award.The All Blacks have been the outstanding team in 2006 and will finish the year at No 1 in the World rankings, a position they have occupied since June 2004.
The Player of the Year award was considered by a panel of rugby greats with 503 caps between them — among them were Jonathan Davies, Keith Wood, Will Greenwood and Fabien Galthie. The panel was chaired by double Rugby World Cup winner John Eales.
All major test matches during 2006 were considered with Australia’s Chris Latham, South Africa’s Fourie du Preez and Ireland lock Paul O’Connell all short-listed alongside McCaw and Carter for the prestigious award.
“I was pretty rapt with the award, to be really honest with you. To receive something like this is truly amazing.
“It’s got to help a lot when you have so many good guys around you. They’re certainly going to make you look good. It’s an excellent side.”
But just how good? The All Blacks are putting a lot of daylight between them and the rest of the field as the World Cup gets closer.
Pundits had tipped France to give the Kiwis a run for their money, especially at home, but a recent flogging and convincing points decision seemed to put paid to that. There was what may look like a comfortable 23-11 centennial test victory and the 43-7 cakewalk a week before.
But 70 points, including eight tries, and conceding only 14 – and one try, must make the World Cup dream seem closer to reality.
“France will still be good. They’ll be very hard, they’ll be OK.” And you just know McCaw means it. I say that France turned up to play in the Second Test the other week.
And that leads us to Jerry Collins, McCaw’s menacing counterpart on the other side of the scrum. No-one really overawes Richie McCaw, but there’s big-time admiration for Collins.
McCaw shakes his head. “Jerry Collins is such a tough, tough guy. He’s definitely one player that I’m so glad he’s on my side.”
There’s a few hard boys who aren’t in his side that he rates highly though and the wing forwards club is a fairly brotherly bunch. I discovered that when I interviewed Boks’ Schalk Burger three years ago when he wore McCaw’s title of World Player of the Year.
Burger said playing against McCaw and George Smith was “like going to school” they were so good.
McCaw is genuinely concerned about Burger’s neck injury and he really hopes the South African hard man with softly-spoken voice of a primary school-age child and the love for his fellow man of Al Capone, will be back on the battlefield.
“It’s always a good physical encounter when we play. Again, that’s what it’s all about.”
George Smith has seen the boom lowered. He finds himself in and out of the Wallabies after being rated the globe’s top breakaway a few years ago.
“I don’t actually know why they’re saying George Smith has lost form. Whenever we’ve played against him he’s gone well. I think he’s playing as well as ever. I think the critics are being a bit ‘picky”.
Again, the breakaway brotherhood.
“But I’m a really big fan of Phil Waugh.” Waugh, of course, is the one who continually makes the selection process for Smith a difficult one.
I point out that fans everywhere except New Zealand relished Waugh belting McCaw in the Tri-nations.
McCaw grins from ear to ear. “He got me a good one, that’s for sure. We got him a good one back. That match was a really good physical one. It was a lot of fun.”
When Tana Umaga announced his retirement after the 2005 Grand Slam tour, McCaw was appointed – make that anointed – All Blacks captain before the Super 14 season was over. There are few jobs that mean more although the only extra perk is that you get your own room on tour. McCaw is a change, for sure. He’s more laidback than Tana, a family man fiercely protective of his privacy.
He leads from the front too. Australia might not be in the slump it is had it not been for McCaw’s tackling in the three recent Tri-nations matches.
Graham Henry clearly made the right captaincy call. A World Cup trophy, though, will have to be taken from Paris to Auckland to elevate him to the list of legendary leaders.
“You’re due,” I say.
“We are due, you’re right.”
“But you know how to lose a semi...”
“Thanks for reminding me.”
Many feel only a runaway train can stop the All Blacks winning the World Cup.
After his first year in charge McCaw doesn’t see it as being quite so comfy.
“We’re going well, of course we are. But as people constantly remind me, we’ve been going well before and it has come unstuck. This is all much more open than anyone might think.”
There’s one factor that might count more for the All Blacks this time.
“This time we have 14 players who were there last time. That’s a lot of World Cup experience.“But the one thing you can never plan for is that off day. Everyone has off days. If that off day is in the World Cup… France are going to be there. The Boks will be good, they will.”
McCaw recalls a few months ago going to the high veldt and coming crashing down to earth.
“And there’s Australia. They could do anything.”
Again, it’s fairly obvious Australia’s form has been dreadful. A draw with Wales, loss to Ireland, nearly beaten by Italy. Rows, rifts, disputes over the captaincy. Even a positive swab for cocaine use.
McCaw shakes his head. He’s been under too many rucks, watched gold socks pound around his head.
“No, they’ll be OK. They’re always OK. We thought last time they wouldn’t be too good and look what happened.”
What about the woeful form of late?
“Ah, you get that. It happens when there’s a change of coaches. Form can suffer for a while everyone gets used to each other.”
McCaw seems to be remembering the brutal hit from Phil Waugh that was heard both sides of the ditch. And that’s when the greatest rugby player in the world is happiest …. Having “a good physical contest on a Saturday afternoon.” Wham. Whack.