Article by Matt McIliraith
“Consider yourself at war”
Richie McCaw stops a thoughtful pause short of labelling South Africa as NZ’s biggest threat at the Rugby World Cup. But you get the feeling the Springboks will not be too far from his thoughts come September. Here’s his exclusive interview.
The AB captain needs little encouragement as he relaxes in his Christchurch living room, to offer a positive assessment of the Boks, and the threat they pose to the NZ’s expected hegemony at Rugby World Cup 2007. “They’re not the only threat, but they are a big one”, he says. “They’ve been the team that we’ve consistently struggled to beat in the last few years, both at home –where we’ve had a few close ones –and over there.”
McCaw is therefore dismissive of suggestions that this year’s Vodacom Tri-Nations is irrelevant and is unfazed by the fact that there is an inverse correlation between Tri Nations and World Cup success : NZ won the 1999 and 2003 SANZAR titles but fell short in the big one.
“The Tri Nations is going to be very important –especially the away legs,” he says. “Those 2 tests will be played away from NZ as will the World Cup, so we’ve got to make sure that we get things right. It will be a barometer. Playing vs. South Africa in South Africa especially has always been a huge challenge for us. We’ve only won 1 of 4 over there in the last three years. That illustrates how though it is, but also goes to the significance of our Test over there this year. It’s an opportunity for us to get it right, in terms of playing the Springboks away from NZ, before the World Cup, so that makes it a very important game, especially as I’ve no doubt that the Boks will be right up there come the World Cup.”
McCaw speaks with great enthusiasm and respect for South Africa. The Springboks excellent home record against NZ under Jake White has no doubt contributed to the AB captain’s regard for their ability, but it is not the only motivating factor.
“It’s the tradition really”, he says. “The Springboks have always been tough for the ABs of any era to play and that hasn’t been diluted at all in the professional era.”
McCaw also points to the common bonds –the shared history as former colonies and as the major bastions of the game of rugby union. “Because rugby is such a big thing in NZ, as it is over in South Africa, it adds an edge to our games that’s not always there in Australia”, he says. “Rugby is only the third, perhaps the fourth, most popular sport in Australia and you do get the feeling when you’re playing there that the public are not quite so interested. The build ups are certainly nowhere near as intense. When we’re playing in South Africa, you almost feel like you’re playing against the whole country –not just the 15 Springboks you face out on the field!”
That feeling manifests itself both in the wider range of playing talent South Africa have at their disposal, compared to most other nations, but also –critically –in the ruthless attitude South Africans take when they pull on the famous green jumper. McCaw says : “They’ve the same pride in their jersey that we have in ours. You can see it in their eyes, and in the way they play when you come up against them. For 80 minutes, it’s almost bigger than life itself. Every test I’ve ever played against the Springboks has been physically demanding, no matter what the final score was. (Richie McCaw has played South Africa nine times, winning seven and losing two)
“That’s their attitude and that’s why they’re such a tough opponent. As a player, no matter what the circumstances leading into the game are, you can never take South Africa lightly.”
McCaw’s respect extends to individual South African players? Pressed for his views on Victor Matfield, Shalk Burger and even his Springbok leadership counterpart John Smit, the responses ring with admiration.
“Matfield’s world class –one of the best in the business –and a huge player for them. He always puts our lineout under a lot of pressure, and he’s talismanic for them. When Victor is going well, the rest of their forward pack goes well. (Shalk) Burger is a bit like that as well. When they (Springboks forwards) get on a roll and provide him with a platform to work from, he’s an absolute menace. He gets into everything which makes him very tough to play against.”
Smit might be not universally accepted as the best man to lead in the minds of all South Africans, but Jake White’s skipper gets the tick from McCaw. “He’s a tough nut to play against on the field. That’s what you want in a captain, I guess : someone who leads by example. When you are playing against him, you always know he’s there. Whether it’s what he is doing, or what he’s saying, he always niggles away.”
Super Rugby form has not traditionally proved an accurate guide as to what will unfold later in the international calendar. In 1998 for example, NZ provided 3 of the four Super 12 semi finalists, and both finalists, but the ABs then lost an unprecedented five successive tests later in the year, and drew a blank in the Tri Nations.
McCaw concurs that the results in this year’s Super 14 are irrelevant as a pointer for the coming international window, although he notes pointedly that South Africa’s key men have all excelled for their Super Rugby sides.
“If you look at their name players, the guys who can generally swing games for them in internationals, they’ve all been going pretty good. It’s a bit of a mystery to a lot of us in NZ why the huge pool of talent that they have hasn’t always come together as well as it probably should have in Super Rugby, but all of their teams seem to have played a little bit more to their traditional strengths this year.”
A pointer for the Springboks later in the year perhaps? McCaw thinks so.
“They’ve always had good forward packs. They tend to be a bit bigger than other teams, and can dominate their opponents physically and bully them. The thing about this year’s competition is that their belief seems to be growing. You saw that in their results, especially with the South African teams winning quite a few games in Oz and NZ. Once they start to do that consistently, they’ll be a real threat to start winning things, both in Super Rugby but also internationally.”
--> Richie McCaw on:
- playing schedules
o “I just haven’t had the chance to have a proper off season in the last couple of years. What the (AB) programme did was allow us to get into nick properly. It also acted as a good mental freshener by giving us a longer than usual break from actually playing. This year, I came back excited about playing again. It wasn’t so much of a mental grind.”
- World Cup contenders
o “There’s no one side that stands out to me this far out : all of the top 5 are capable of beating each other one day, so they’re all in with a shot, but South Africa will definitely be up there.”
- Shalk’s comeback
o “I guess there was always a question about his ability to get back, after the injury he suffered, but we had him first up on our return to Super 14 this year and there’s no doubt in my mind after the way he played that night that it is the same old Shalk. He was as fearless as always!”
- All Black reconditioning
o “I’m still the same size. What the conditioning programme allowed, was to get me back –physically –to where I was about three years ago, in terms of my strength and physical conditioning, and that’s shown up in my results in the speed and strength testing we do.”
==> Oh, Richie! Are you sure you wanna work in a bank? Or in a plane? I don’t think so, sweetie, I think you have pretty good skills to become a politician (“Has anyone ever told you you could speak diplo-speech pretty well?” coz you can! It’s not a reproach, it’s just a remark...)
Good article about Richie’s view on South Africa’s rugby. But I’d have liked to have his opinion on what’s going on now (with the quotas, and all the players leaving up to Europe,…) Maybe next time.
Anyway, thank you so much to Chill, our Special S-Af reporter, for sending us the article.
==> Oh Richie! Tu es vraiment sûr de vouloir travailler dans le monde des affaires ? ou dans l’aéronautique ? Tu as quelques aptitudes pour devenir un bon politicien (« On ne t’as jamais dit que tu savais être diplomate ? » parce que ce n’est pas un reproche, juste une constatation…)
Article qui nous donne le point de vue de notre capitaine préféré sur le rugby sud-af. Même s’il n’y a aucune mention des problèmes actuels (l’introduction des quotas dans l’équipe nationale l’an prochain, l’exode de pas mal de joueurs qui ont peur de ces quotas,….) Peut-être une idée de question pour la prochaine fois.
Sinon, MERCI à Chill, notre correspondante permanente en Afrique du Sud, pour nous avoir envoyé cet article.