By PHIL GIFFORD, Sunday Star Times
Sunday, 07 December 2008
One sunny June afternoon in 2001, Todd Blackadder, in his last year as a player for Canterbury, was talking about a 20-year-old flanker he'd just had a full training run with.
"This bloke can do everything. He's fast, strong, and technically he's amazing. I think he's going to be one of the great loose forwards."
Time would prove Blackadder's early impression of the player in question, Richie McCaw, was almost spookily accurate.
Awards are awards, but with all due respect to the player of the year titles for Shane Williams (world) and Andrew Hore (New Zealand), the dominant figure in world rugby in 2008 has been McCaw.
It's no surprise to those who know him that his reaction to the debacle of last year's world cup was not to sulk, or to leave New Zealand.
League coaching guru Wayne Bennett on Radio Sport last week said it was always his choice after a big reverse to "get better not bitter". So it's been with McCaw.
The most inspiring aspect of the All Blacks' revival this year has been the leadership of McCaw, who is currently running at a 90 percent winning rate in tests. He now not only puts subtle pressures on referees, but also has players in his own side on the verge of whiplash as they swivel to get orders from him when play breaks down.
He stays calm when the going gets niggly. You can go to the bank on the fact that McCaw's answer to dirt will be to aim for a bunch of tries, not a bunch of fives. How dominant has he been as a captain? When he missed three tests with injury in the middle of Tri Nations the All Blacks lost two of them.
He also plays a vital role as a highly acceptable face for All Blacks rugby. Sarcasm, often near the surface in the coaching staff, is not part of his persona.
You don't need to worry about public relations when McCaw is captain. There's no real divide between the man and the public image, so being decent and polite to people isn't something he needs to work on with a consultant.
Let's not get ridiculous about it. He doesn't leap tall buildings in a single bound (although he might manage it in two goes), and there are no reports that in his spare time he heals the sick and raises the dead. He doesn't live in a germ-free environment, and will enjoy a drink when the time is right. But it's illuminating that in talking to a number of people in provincial unions who have had dealings with him, not a single person has a bad word to say.
In an increasingly competitive battle for the hearts and minds of New Zealand sports fans, it's a stroke of rare good fortune for rugby that it has someone virtually the epitome of a good, keen man in charge.
The foundation, of course, is what McCaw does as a player.
I've been lucky enough to watch Waka Nathan, Graham Mourie, Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld at the height of their powers. After Nathan I never dreamed I would see as good an openside flanker. Mourie's genius rested in almost preternatural anticipation and application, but he wasn't blessed with the physical strength and explosiveness of Nathan.
Then Michael Jones arrived. As strong in testing, All Black trainer Jim Blair would report, as a test prop, with the vertical leap of a test lock, almost as much speed as a test wing, and as skilled as a first five-eighths.
Kronfeld was a superb player, on the ground and running with the ball, but if only one player could wear the No 7 jersey in a game your child's lives depended on, only a toss of a coin could separate Jones and McCaw.
That's how good he is.