Monday, April 21, 2008

In defence of the All Blacks captain

By MARC HINTON - RugbyHeaven
Monday, 21 April 2008

Back the truck up a minute. Skipper Richie McCaw did not personally unhinge the All Blacks' World Cup campaign and to portray him as the villain of the piece is outrageous, grossly unfair and potentially damaging for New Zealand rugby.

At a time when the New Zealand game is in crisis in terms of retaining our leading players, it beggars belief to think that McCaw has been hung out to dry by his own organisation, not to mention segments of the media who have jumped all over the brilliant openside worse than any mugging he's received on the field.

Dan Carter is probably going offshore to play his rugby (and at nearly $2 million a year, who could blame him?). So is Nick Evans. We're told Jerry Collins will also follow suit before too long. They're just the tip of the iceberg, too.

McCaw has committed to stay in New Zealand, yet there seems to have been an unhealthy eagerness by all concerned to make him the headline act in the ridiculous finger-pointing exercise that the badly belated World Cup review has thrown up.

It is just another factor in the lack of faith I now have in the people running the New Zealand game – a general attitude that is becoming increasingly prevalent.

What on earth has this review achieved, other than to regurgitate the whole blame game over what was one bad performance by a team poorly prepared to play in a World Cup? Has anybody seen Australia's review of their equally shoddy quarter-final effort? No, because they're too smart to waste their time and money over a PR disaster like this?

Then to have the captain publicly undermined in the report which rightly raised some serious questions over the lack of leadership in the All Blacks, while the coach and his offsiders have been reappointed carte-blanche, seems like a little bit of a double-standard.

I just don't get what any of this is achieving. Any critic worth his salt could have told them the guts of what's come out in this review within hours, if not minutes, of the Cardiff capitulation. There were lessons to be heeded. But did we need a public humiliation to do so?

It's hard not to sympathise with McCaw who must feel at the moment as though the world's against him. His body language over the weekend indicated it was all getting on top of him.

The whole thing angers me.

Making McCaw the scapegoat for the All Blacks' pathetic World Cup exit last October may suit the NZRU and its misguided desire to deflect blame over the whole shambles, but it is another negative issue the game could have done without.

Sure, the leadership could have been better over the closing stages of the quarter-final in Cardiff, but to hang, draw and quarter one bloke because his team wasn't good enough to get up and nail a score with about 99% of the possession is just plain unfair.

I'm not exonerating McCaw from any culpability on the strength of the fact that we want to keep him in New Zealand, so he should be untouchable.

All I'm saying is let's get real here. Richie probably made a bad call in not organising his team to go for the dropped goal as was supposedly ordered by his coaches.

But that was just one ingredient in the whole sorry recipe that cooked up the All Blacks' worst ever World Cup exit.

Some people have called for McCaw to be dropped as All Blacks captain because of this whole mess.

I don't see that happening, though Graham Henry's public defence of his skipper after the report's release did seem a tad contrived to me.

McCaw is a capable enough captain most of the time, though it does seem to be a responsibility that is weighing heavily upon him.

Probably a more salient question we should ask ourselves is are the All Blacks best served by having McCaw as their skipper? Or more importantly why this pre-conceived notion that you best player should be your captain?

McCaw is a fantastic bloke and a solid sort of citizen. Plus he's one heck of a rugby player. But should a No 7 captain any rugby side given the sort of game an openside now plays? He spends much of his time buried at the bottom of rucks and tends to run a constant battle to stay on the right side of a fine line with the referee.

He is also battered from pillar to post throughout the course of 80 minutes and plays such a high-intensity, instinctive game, that the cool, calm, detached demeanour required to make key captaincy decisions just can't be made from that position.

Plus, another school of thought is that you should let your standout player do what he does best, and not burden him with extra responsibilities. Kobe Bryant is the best player in the LA Lakers (not to mention the whole NBA) and their spiritual guiding force. Yet he is probably not their voice of reason in a tight situation. He's thinking about what HE needs to do to win his team a game, and lets others take on the mantle of calm and measured leadership.

Perhaps McCaw should be left to dominate the breakdown, continue his running haggle with the referee and provide the sort of inspirational touches for which he is known, without having to bother with setting on-field tactics.

The first five sitting back in the pocket, or even the halfback as the intermediary between forwards and backs, seem much more measured positions from which to devise tactics.

If it's to be a forward, hooker, lock or No 8 all seem to be better positions from which to take a degree of detachment.

But when you're an openside at the very cutting edge of a game as big as a World Cup quarter-final, it's almost impossible to recall that you haven't even been given one penalty in an entire half where you've dominated possession. Let alone debate the merits of it with a rookie ref.

So if McCaw is to go as All Blacks captain, it should be a proactive move based not on a report pointing the finger, but recognition by his coaches that it's not the best way to use him.

To be honest I don't even see that happening this year. Henry and co will rally round their skip and say all the right things publicly. But they'd do him an enormous favour by at least giving him a right-hand man to take some of the pressure off.

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