By MARC HINTON, RugbyHeavenTuesday, 10 June 2008
Is it the first sign of a lifting of the long, dark cloud that hangs over New Zealand rugby? Certainly Richie McCaw's announcement on Monday that he's hanging around at least until the end of 2011 has the potential to lighten the gloom markedly.
This was the sort of agreement that must have come like manna from heaven for the embattled New Zealand Rugby Union. Fighting a ferocious mix of public apathy and antipathy, having their much-liked and admired All Blacks captain reaffirm his commitment to the New Zealand game certainly put the first sign of a smile back on the face of the organisation's leader, Steve Tew.
Well it might have, too.
A day after Steve Hansen anointed him the finest All Black No 7 in our history, McCaw unveiled a two-year extension to his deal with the NZRU that sends a clear message to the money-waving agents of the north.
It goes something like this: some All Black jerseys may well be for sale, but the No 7 one certainly is not.
McCaw's words after announcing his decision would also have been music to the NZRU's ears. He spoke of his "enjoyment" at playing for the All Blacks and Crusaders and at his excitement over what lies ahead. They were factors, he added, at this stage of his career that were not up for the bidding.
What is more, he also confirmed that though the six-month "sabbatical" in the north might be his old mate Dan Carter's cup of tea, for a hard-working, often-battered openside flanker like himself it remained the furthest thing from his mind.
"I've got no intentions of thinking like that at the moment," he said.
Of more interest, he confirmed, might be the chance to factor an extra recovery period into his schedule. Perhaps even after a long, 15-test schedule like the one he has in front of him through the rest of this year. It's something that has been "discussed" as part of his new deal.
"They're definitely open to talking about that if required," said McCaw of a personal reconditioning period that is not only sensible, but surely a must for the invaluable All Blacks skipper."At the end of the day if you're getting to the point where you need to talk about it you'd be silly to carry on because you aren't going to last long anyway. I know Tewy and the All Black coaches are certainly like 'if you're feeling like that come and talk to us'. It's great to know you've got the sort of relationship you can go and do that."
It's put to the All Blacks captain that, indeed, a break would be more important to him than a stint playing more rugby up north, even if it is for a small fortune.
"That wouldn't interest me to be quite honest," said McCaw. "Who knows down the track, but at the moment it's probably not something I'd do."
In terms of a break he might look to work into his schedule, McCaw added: "It might be after a tour you have an extra month off before you get back to Super 14. You may not miss any games but perhaps just be out of the environment. It's little things like that.
"Hopefully it won't become an issue, but if we get to the point of 14 or 15 tests this year I might need it. But at least knowing you can go and have a yarn about that, it's nice to know."
McCaw said the sort of money being thrown at Carter was eye-opening, but for him right now it wasn't something that would entice him away from New Zealand.
"You've got to go for the right reasons, the reasons that stimulate you," said the 27-year-old 60-test All Black. "If I was just going over there to earn a bit extra, I just wouldn't do that to be honest. I'd have to go because I want to go. At the moment I want to be here playing."
Not that McCaw, who's estimated to earn around $600,000 annually for his duties as national captain, is ruling out an overseas shift entirely.
"Don't get me wrong. You've got to back yourself and at the end of 2011 I'll still be 30, and there could be opportunities there then. Who knows?"
As incredulous English media types continue to prod him about possible regrets over not heading north, he shot back: "I talk to guys overseas, and the grass sometimes isn't always greener. It's a pretty hard competition they play in and it is a long winter."
Besides, McCaw says he has more than enough on his plate now, leading the hoped for post-World Cup resurgence in New Zealand rugby.
"It's very stimulating doing stuff like that, contributing in a good way to ensure the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby carry on the way we have over the last few years. When you hear mates say they're moving on, you can't begrudge them their right as individuals. But the big thing that I can have an influence over is helping to make the All Black environment fun, so that it stimulates guys to be here."
And what of Hansen's head-spinning assessment? A day after the 21-11 victory over Ireland, the All Blacks forwards coach had said McCaw "is the greatest No 7 New Zealand has ever had". He pointed out that putting him above Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld, among others, was a big call but that he "probably heads them off".
McCaw almost blushed to be told of his fellow Cantab's lofty claim.
"I didn't realise he'd said that. There was probably a bit of emotion there perhaps after the weekend. I don't quite know what to say about that. To be even mentioned in the same breath as those guys who were my heroes growing up is pretty special really, pretty cool."