James Gemmell Posted 10th August 2010
Sharing a television studio every week with the most-capped All Black of all time is always an educational experience, and recently it has also provided an insight to a perspective shared by very few.
Like most rugby followers, Sean Fitzpatrick marvels at the quality and consistency of Richie McCaw's play at openside flanker for New Zealand. That he is the best in the world in his position is not really up for debate, and Fitzpatrick's comments and analysis in the studio help to back up what we already know.
But what is perhaps less obvious to the casual observer is the development of McCaw as a leader, and the impact this is having on the All Black team around him. It is this development that Fitzpatrick is taking a particular interest in, and no one is better positioned to consider what the current captain is going through.
Fitzpatrick led the All Black in 51 Tests between 1992 and 1997, a record that will be equalled by McCaw in Johannesburg in less than two weeks. Overall his tenure was hugely successful, but there were failures, particularly early on, and there was heartbreak in the form of the 1995 World Cup.
The All Black team that emerged in 1996 and 1997 is regarded as one of the finest of all-time, and Fitzpatrick led them every step of the way. He was surrounded by a core group of experienced players, each of them the best in the world in their positions, and the team also boasted some remarkable young talent. In Fitzpatrick's own words, this was 'his team', and he led as such.
Almost 15 years later, the parallels between the two teams and the two captains are hard to ignore. McCaw now leads with an understanding and a belief that Fitzpatrick can relate to. There's a belief in himself, and the team around him, that they are capable of anything they set out to achieve.
There's an understanding of when a gameplan's not working, and a belief and an ability to change it, mid-game. This was evident against Australia in Christchurch last week, when an improved Wallabies performance at times put the All Blacks under pressure.
There have been examples of this growing leadership for some time now. On last year's autumn tour to the UK and Europe, McCaw could often be seen to run training sessions, and when interacting with Graham Henry, he did so as an equal.
Even in an interview situation, where McCaw rarely gives any genuine emotion, there were glimpses of his confidence at the helm. After three weeks the tour had produced mixed performances, and with the camera on, the skipper rolled out the usual line on respecting the opposition and the team needing to be at their best. When we stopped recording, I thanked him and wished him the best for Twickenham that Saturday. "Cheers, can't wait. We're gonna click soon, just not sure when. But some team is going to get smashed".
The Twickenham Test was a dour affair, but a week later the All Blacks demolished France in Marseille. The team had clicked, as McCaw had expected, and no doubt as he had demanded.
His apprenticeship as captain is now over, but of course there is unfinished business. The next challenge is at a sold-out Soccer City in Johannesburg, where a solitary competition point will return the Tri-Nations trophy to New Zealand, and where McCaw will equal Fitzpatrick's captaincy record.
I imagine, given the recipient, it's a record Sean will be happy to relinquish.