As far as the NZRU were concerned the rot had to stop and, as always, it was going to be captain Richie McCaw leading the way.
All Black stars Carl Hayman, Chris Jack and Aaron Mauger, all wanted by the NZRU, had already been lured by Newcastle, Saracens and Leicester. Byron Kelleher and Anton Oliver, albeit somewhat longer in the tooth, had revealed they were going to play in France after the World Cup and Luke McAllister might yet join them if he signs with Toulouse. With Rico Gear lining up a possible move to Europe, occasional All Black Clarke Dermody having signed with London Irish and Marty Holah, Greg Rawlinson and Jimmy Cowan testing Northern Hemisphere waters, the collateral damage to New Zealand’s playing stocks has been causing significant alarm.
Causing even more alarm, though, was the knowledge that captain and IRB Player Of The Year McCaw was out of contract at the end of the year. What’s more, the queue of European predators hoping to lure the world’s best openside was reaching obscene lengths.
Losing Hayman and Mauger in particular had been a bitter pill to swallow, but if McCaw were to defect that would be catastrophic.
Still only 26 years old but with a half-century of caps under his belt, McCaw is the jewel in the All Blacks crown. In Brisbane last year his performance was so extraordinary that Graham Henry was moved to say: “I don’t think anyone could ever play any better than that.”
His tackling was deadly, his work on the ground stunning and he was continually looking over his shoulder to urge his troops on.
But he gives more to the All Blacks than turnovers and commitment.
McCaw is a line in the sand captain. He makes it clear to opponents just exactly what the All Blacks are prepared to do to win.
In recent years that hasn’t always been the case. In 1999 Taine Randell squealed to the referee he was being roughly handled in an area marked fragile when the All Blacks crashed out in the semi-final to France. At the following World Cup Reuben Thorne stood mute while George Gregan badgered the referee, verbally abused various All Blacks and inspired his team.
The All Blacks carry an aura.
Opponents must believe they are ready to do anything for the jersey and the captain sets the tone. Neither Randell nor Thorne did much to enhance the myth of the All Blacks as indestructible.
McCaw has gone some way to restoring that global perception, which is vital in a sport decided by physical collisions. He doesn’t back down and when the Wallabies resorted to targeting him in 2006, McCaw took all they could throw at him and kept coming back for more.
While McCaw is on deck, the all Blacks will not be intimidated which is partly why Graham Henry has groomed him from early 2004 to succeed Tana Umaga as captain. There is also the fact that McCaw is the archetypal professional that Henry is trying to build. Since taking the job in 2003, Henry has tried to stamp out the binge-drinking culture and encourage the players to broaden their horizons. McCaw, as usual, has led the way.
Bright enough to win a place at Lincoln University in Christchurch, where he studied agriculture before rugby demands became too great, McCaw has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather - who flew fighter planes for the Allies in World War Two - and gained his pilot’s license. So, on those precious days when he’s not required to front up on a muddy field, McCaw is likely to be found soaring above the Southern Alps.
He is an engaging mix. Articulate, clean-cut, bright and worldly. He represents the contemporary face of All Black rugby.
Given his importance to the team, to the brand and to the very future of New Zealand rugby, it’s no wonder small mountains have been moved to ensure McCaw commits to another tour of duty. The NZRU have thrown the kitchen sink at McCaw in terms of money in the hope he can be persuaded to stay on until 2011 and the indications are the skipper will sign.
“I’m happy here so don’t want to leave,” McCaw has already said. “It’s disappointing to see them [Mauger et al] leave, but I can’t begrudge them for making the decisions they have, because everyone has their own reasons. We just have to make every effort to make sure guy can, and want, to stay, and if they don’t then make sure that the guys that keep coming through are handled well. I’m keen to stay as long as we get something we’re all happy with.”
Securing McCaw will be a massive coup for the NZRU and, in some ways, will be a triumph for former All Black coach John Mitchell. Having been dramatically installed as All Blacks coach in September 2001, Mitchell wanted McCaw in his debut season for Canterbury and named the then 21-year-old in his first squad. There were voices of objection. McCaw had excelled at Otago Boys High School and he’d done well with the New Zealand Under-19’s and Colts teams. But he had only two brief substitute appearances at Super 12 and one NPC campaign behind him when Mitchell started him against Ireland in Dublin. Some of the old guard felt it was too early, but, after 80 minutes in Dublin, none of them could doubt the pedigree.
Mitchell’s assistant Robbie Deans, who had charge of McCaw at the Crusaders, admitted a few years later that they had no doubts about McCaw’s ability but they couldn’t be sure that he had the temperament to handle Test rugby until they threw him in.
McCaw was barely out of his teens, his first-class experience was limited and the pressure on him was massive. All Deans and Mitchell had was a gut feeling that they were working with something special, a player who had all the mental tools to not be overawed - a player who was simply born to be an All Black. Luckily, their instincts were good. McCaw didn’t flinch and that has been his way ever since.
source : Rugby World magazines Guide to the RWC and they were profiling New Zealand (says Jo)