Monday, June 07, 2010

McCaw likely to stay in NZ after World Cup

Richie McCaw tells Gregor Paul what the All Blacks have to do to win this season.

It's true that Richie McCaw is an eternal optimist. In his position, he's obliged to talk in only the most upbeat terms: injuries are opportunities for others; new caps bring energy and a disappointing Super 14 for all New Zealand's teams provided time to rest and evaluate.

But, accepting that the McCaw lexicon has to be loaded with positive buzz words and his duty to focus on the positives, there is a genuine sense of him being excited by the potential of the All Black side he captains.

Even with a host of regulars unavailable because of injury, McCaw took a look around when he arrived in camp last week and liked what he saw. There were good players all around him.
There was a mix of experience and new faces and, most important of all, there was a memory still burning of the last time the All Blacks played; the 39-12 victory in Marseilles has taken on enormous importance.

This is the game that will guide the All Blacks of 2010. It will be their tactical, technical and emotional template. There was a good vibe that night in the South of France.

The All Blacks, for the first time in 2009, nailed the basics. Their execution was faultless and they mixed a solid kicking strategy with effective counter-attack.

It was a game plan six months ahead of its time - the subsequent change in law interpretations has opened the way for the All Blacks to see their last performance as the beginning of a new era.
For McCaw there was a bit more to it; the victory in Marseilles restored a generic belief that he and his side were capable of excellence; not drifting or lagging the South Africans.

"Last year it was the South Africans that caused us the most problems," says McCaw.
"They were hard to play against. When you look at the Bulls, they are similar. They don't play much rugby but what they do, they do well. There is a lot of kicking but they know how to use the ball.
"This year it has changed a little bit. Kicking is still an important part of the game - building pressure, really. But there is a chance to play a bit as well. If you look at the Reds, they have thrown the ball around and run from everywhere.
"It's about getting the balance right for our players, playing to our strengths. I look back to the Marseilles game last year and we got that right. You have to play what is best for you. You have to believe in what you are trying to do and that is the key."

There's an inference that earlier in the season, particularly when the All Blacks were trying to run their way to glory in Bloemfontein and Durban, that belief was in short supply.

"When you lose one, then you lose two, you think 'have we got this wrong?'. We were under pressure," says McCaw.
"At the time it feels like that. But we just didn't get things right. We didn't get our set-piece right and that put us under pressure from the go - that was the learning we took out of last year.
"Regardless of the rules, we just didn't get our fundamentals right."

The determination to fix that is obvious - three victories and pristine execution of the set-piece and other basic skills are the goals for June. That's what is required to beat Ireland and Wales. McCaw acknowledges that these goals are also about preparation for the Tri Nations.

If the All Blacks are to wrest back the title, they can only do so if the foundation is laid each test. From there, they are going to have to offer something extra. In some minds there lies doubt as to whether this All Black side has the range of skills, vision and depth to succeed. McCaw is not one of those.

"I keep thinking that this is a strong team. I look around and I see a hell of a lot of talented players. We have got to believe in that.
"Again I go back to the Marseilles test and most of those guys are here. I think there are at least 12 of the guys who started the game and the others are going to be back soon enough, too. That doesn't mean it's just going to happen.
"The Tri Nations is tough. Playing each team three times is hard and we found that out last year when we didn't quite get it right.
"The Africans have a lot of depth and the Australians have shown they have a bit of depth, too. We have to get started in the next three weeks and then take that into the Tri Nations."


At some stage this year, McCaw will surpass Sean Fitzpatrick as the longest-serving All Black captain. It's something he's aware of but certainly not focused on.
He's not a numbers man. Reflection can wait until his career is over. He doesn't know when that will be but next year's World Cup shouldn't be viewed as the terminus.

"I'll only be 30. It will come down again to whether I think I have more to offer, whether I think I can be better and whether I'm still enjoying it. I have thought about it a little bit. Whatever happens at the World Cup, you don't want that to be the end. I am really enjoying playing here and at this stage I don't see why I would change anything.
"But you never know. Things can change pretty quickly in this game. I have been in the role a while, someone might say it's time for someone else. I haven't given it a lot of thought."
His preference would be to keep his options open until after the World Cup; to delay making any decision until then.
"I have to talk to the NZRU whether you can do that. Once I know that I can think about it a bit more."

He's right to preface his age with 'only'. Admittedly the role of tight forwards is less aerobic, but McCaw can't have helped notice that both John Smit and Victor Matfield, men respectively three years and four years his senior, have consistently improved since they turned 30.

There has always been this expectation that the physical toll of the last 10 years will suddenly catch up with McCaw and turn him into a mere mortal.

Everyone seems to think that time is imminent yet he's cleverly and expertly adapted his game this year to reflect the greater emphasis on continuity and ball carrying.
He doesn't see age as a barrier. His bigger concern is that others do.

"Heading offshore hasn't appealed because I have enjoyed it here," he says.
"But it might be someone else's decision [whether he stays in New Zealand]. Everyone wants to go on their terms. Without it being a big thing you can pick up a vibe [whether you are wanted or not].
"I am really enjoying the rugby this year. I am really excited about being back and I guess if that keeps going, then you want to keep going as long as you can and as long as the body holds together.
"You are a long time not playing. After the Tri Nations, I'll understand a bit more. If I really enjoy it, I'll know that I want more or maybe I'll think it's getting harder and harder.
"You have got to really want to be here. And you have got to really want to play for the All Blacks. It became really obvious to me after the last World Cup that I hadn't had enough. I still felt like I could be a better player and the best environment is in New Zealand."

McCaw says that not just because of the quality of rugby. The national body has been flexible and pro-active in helping players such as McCaw commit to staying here.

Aware that there are perennial offers to leave, McCaw and other senior players have been granted sabbaticals and the right to determine their workloads in consultation with the various coaches.

That allowed McCaw to skip the first three weeks of this year's Super 14 and it's something he might repeat in 2011.

"I really enjoyed having an extra couple of weeks this year to get right. I ended up, perhaps how the team was going, playing 11 straight games. I was able to enjoy that because of that extra rest time.
"The end of the Tri Nations is the right time to have a chat about that. I need to have a chat with Todd [Crusaders coach Blackadder] about that then. It's best to get it sorted before you go on the end of season tour.
"If taking two weeks off sets you up for the rest of the year then it's a no-brainer."

By Gregor Paul

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