Sunday, 19 August 2007
It can be one of the loneliest places on earth captaining an All Blacks team at a World Cup. Ask Taine Randell. Ask Reuben Thorne. When it's all going well, it's a breeze; but when things start to unravel you can feel as helpless as George W Bush with the Times crossword.
The captain is the spiritual guiding force. It's to him the troops turn in times of crisis. The thing is, of late the All Blacks' captain hasn't had a lot of answers when the rot has set in at Rugby World Cup time.
In 2003 Thorne was in charge when his side came out flat and couldn't gain any sort of control of the ill-fated semifinal against Australia in Sydney. He was unable to institute the changes needed. In short, he had no plan B.
In many ways it was worse in 1999 when Randell's All Blacks completely unravelled in the face of a stirring French second-half comeback in another semifinal shocker. Once again the leader was helpless as the tide turned against him.It's an unforgiving position, no doubt.
Around 99 per cent of the time all you have to worry about is what to say at the post-match press conference. The on-field stuff takes care of itself. You are skippering the All Blacks after all.
But if there's a lesson from recent history, it's that the All Blacks have lacked decisive leadership when they've needed it most at World Cups.
It's one that coach Graham Henry has had fairly high on his list of priorities as he's groomed Richie McCaw for the job.Two years as Tana Umaga's deputy was a key part of the apprenticeship.
But Henry has also ensured McCaw's is not a lone voice when it comes to leading the All Blacks. There is, of course, the leadership group which has been designed principally to share the load in this area and encourage a wider responsibility.
Plus, it's helped that the All Blacks captain is also their best player or at least one of the two truly global superstars they have in their midst. The other one, the princely Dan Carter, believes his Canterbury, Crusaders and All Blacks teammate has emerged as just the captain his country needs as another World Cup looms on the horizon.
"He's a great leader," says Carter of his friend. "The reason he's a great leader is the way he plays the game. He doesn't change anything because he's the captain. He just goes out there and puts his body on the line.(He) just inspires you to push your body to the limit, just like he does every game."
The ice-cool first-five says one of McCaw's attributes is his ability to handle the pressure that goes with the position.
"It's a credit to him," says Carter. "People expect a lot. But he hasn't changed in any way. I think he handles it all really well."
In fact it's no stretch to say that McCaw and Carter the two key figures in the All Blacks' cup campaign lean on each other. Empathy, after all, is the ultimate bond.
"But it's more a case that the whole team are here to support both of us," says Carter.
"There's some pretty experienced guys within the team, with a lot of knowledge. It's great knowing that support's there when you need it."
It's one of the principal reasons Thorne is still there. So too Anton Oliver, another former captain. Sure, they can play a bit. But they're also huge crutches for McCaw.
"Having been in his situation before, I know how important it will be to have good support around him," says Thorne.
"Myself and Anton and a number of other senior guys will try to get behind him and try to make his life a little bit easier."
This will be vital for McCaw. Unlike previous skippers, he'll have a network of support when the acid-test inevitably comes during this campaign.
Sir Brian Lochore, who knows a little about leadership, describes McCaw as "very comfortable" in the role, where he commands "total respect".
"He's a highly intelligent person and a very good rugby player and he's very well liked by his fellow players. I think he has grown in the role very well."
Just how much, we won't know for sure until that moment comes when a response is required. McCaw, by all accounts, is prepared for it.
I have no idea if Richie has a plan B ; but I know that whatever the result, he will always have the Richie Girls!
So, there is no problem...