By DUNCAN JOHNSTONE in Dublin, Fairfax Media
Thursday, 13 November 2008
Thursday, 13 November 2008
Ireland will always hold a special place in Richie McCaw's heart after making his All Blacks debut in Dublin seven years ago but the skipper knows this is not the time for nostalgia as he attempts to guide his side through the second leg of their Grand Slam attempt at Croke Park.
Having handed the captaincy to Keven Mealamu last week as the All Blacks cast aside a spirit Scottish challenge 32-6 in Edinburgh, McCaw is back in charge for this encounter against Ireland (kickoff 6.15am Sunday, NZ time). He's come a long way from the nervous 20-year-old who ran out for his debut in Dublin in 2001, although he set the standards then with a man of the match performance pointing the way for what has become a stellar All Blacks career.
"I was shitting myself really," McCaw recalls with brutal honesty. "I was pretty surprised to be there and I just wanted to go out and justify myself really. It was a dream come true to get a chance to play for the All Blacks. One memory I have is the Irish scoring just after halftime and we were down by quite a few points and I was thinking, oh no."
The All Blacks trailed 7-21 just after the break but held their nerve to run in five second half tries and come away 40-29 winners. McCaw would probably happily take a similar result this weekend although he believes there's a different scenario hanging over this match and he's hoping it's more in the All Blacks' favour.
"That was a team that had new coaches (John Mitchell and Robbie Deans). There were two new players (McCaw and Aaron Mauger) and there was a bit of a new feel to the team. This team is pretty settled in terms of senior players. We have over 600 test caps out there on Saturday which is a fair few. We may have lost some players since last year but we still have a core of experience there."
McCaw has played Ireland seven times for seven wins though he wouldn't judge any of them particularly easy for himself or the team despite some big scorelines including the 45-7 demolition in Dublin three years ago which was part of a successful Grand Slam.
"The challenge I have had from those guys in the past has always been a good one, a physical one. You can't allow them to get go-forward or they can be a real menace," he says of the Irish, particularly their forwards.
At 27 and with 67 tests under his belt McCaw is a clever customer these days, clearly the best in his position in the world. Yes, he set an early standard but he has had to use his mind and body to maintain or better that.
"I wasn't quite 100kg back then, I have matured a bit more (to 106kg) with my body. Mentally it was all about being excited and wanting to go out and play back then. I didn't really understand why I was going to play good or not so good. I was just flying into everything. I think you learn over time about how to be a bit more consistent with what you need to do leading up to a test match to make sure you do perform. That's an experience thing."
But he points out that some basics remain the same.
"At the end of the day the game hasn't changed a lot – you need to have the excitement you had back then along with the knowledge you pick up along the way to be hopefully a better player than when you started. It's about being a bit more cunning."
McCaw was at the top of his game when the All Blacks last beat Ireland. With shocking weather conditions enveloping the Cake Tin in June, he took control of an intense forward battle with a performance that drew assistant coach Steve Hansen to declare McCaw was in a class of his own as an All Blacks flanker, even greater than Michael Jones.
You'll get nothing but the predictable modest response from McCaw on that assessment or his performance that night as the All Blacks won 21-11: "Yeah, I was pretty happy with my game. But the conditions played into my hands a wee bit. The ball doesn't get too far away from you and you can get amongst it. That was a hard fought win."
The rain and cold were so bad that night that McCaw says little can be measured from the performance of either team heading into this rematch.
"No, you can't take a lot out of that game apart from the fact that it was a very physical test. But that's never any different."
McCaw senses there is a fair bit of "cunning" around him heading into this clash. He's been happy with the way the All Blacks have managed to dig themselves out of a couple of holes this year and grind out wins.
It's the sort of grit that should serve them well in what promises to be a difficult environment.
When he looks back on the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations win in Brisbane and even the victory over Australia in Hong Kong two weeks ago, it gives him a bit of reassurance.
"You have confidence that guys aren't going to panic - if you are down at halftime that you have the confidence to turn things around. So going through those experiences definitely helps ... but you just don't want to get into those situations I suppose."
McCaw is reasonably happy with where the team is at this week. After patchy wins from two different lineups over the past two weekends, he wants the top All Blacks side to put things together against the Irish. He likes the way they have trained in Dublin and hopes that translates into performance.
"We were a little bit disappointed the way we started in Hong Kong. It took us 40 minutes to get our game going. But I thought for the second half we played some good rugby. Last week we were up against a reasonable Scottish team. They threw everything at it. We weren't happy with everything about the way we attacked but our defence was pretty good. Hopefully we are another week on. We realise we are going to have to start well and play a full 80 minutes because we are up against a good team."