By PHIL GIFFORD, Sunday Star Times
Sunday, 22 June 2008
How much is Richie McCaw worth to the All Blacks?
In a word: priceless, which is why the clunking sound last night in Christchurch was the hearts of everyone, from Graham Henry to the youngest ball boy, sinking at the sight of McCaw limping off in pain with an ankle injury.
Why is he so vital? For a start, at a time when restoring faith in rugby has never been more important he has been delivering in every area. On the field he was bringing to the All Blacks the form that made him such a force in Super 14. And that made him the no-question, hands-down, sure-bet, best openside flanker in the world, displaying game after game all the skills that statement demands.
They say that courage is grace under pressure, and off the field McCaw has never yielded to the temptation to display bitterness in the wash-up after the world cup.
It was probably inevitable that, during the week, under pressure from the elephant in the room of possible sexual assault charges involving his players, caretaker English coach Ron Andrew would accuse McCaw of cheating. As former Crusaders and All Blacks team-mate Dave Hewett wryly noted, "It's a bit like the Salem witch trials isn't? What people don't understand, they believe must be evil."
It took all of 25 seconds for McCaw to make his mark last night, grabbing the ball off an English forward trapped on the ground, and setting off the movement that led to England conceding the opening penalty for Dan Carter.
We all know the mantra that one player doesn't make a team. But in the case of McCaw you get not just a player, but, in the way Buck Shelford did in his time as All Black captain, inspiration in a jersey. Without him the All Blacks last night could still offer rugby genius in Carter, someone not just gifted to a ridiculous degree, but also entirely without fear.
The leap in the air that almost returned a try in the first half was a prime example of how a true star of the sport is able to block out crowd noise and a horde of opposing players seeking to do him damage, and only see the ball.
Muhammad Ali once said that when he was in peak form everything in the ring slowed down until he was able to not just see the first punch coming, but the twitch in a shoulder that signalled the next one. Carter was in that zone in 2005 against the Lions, and he's largely back in it now.
It was a hopeful sign too that despite the reluctance with which some of us greeted the spelling of Conrad Smith that Richard Kahui wore the No 13 jersey as if he'd been in it for years. Kahui, like Smith, is an interesting guy off the field, a man with a genuinely sharp, subtle sense of humour, and a view of the world that doesn't stop at the touchlines.
Kahui's open field running is not only fast, but elusive and calculated. Centre is now one of the positions where the All Blacks selectors, despite the exodus north, still have the luxury of choosing between two high quality players.
To complete the embarrassment of a week in which what happened at the Hilton was getting more attention in the British media than anything on the field, their midfield defence would actually made a sieve look watertight.