By Paul Lewis and Gregor Paul
Sunday Aug 15, 2010
Richie McCaw is the greatest All Black ever, writes Gregor Paul. Oh no, he isn't, argues Paul Lewis.
Even with memories of Michael Jones still fresh in the mind; even trawling through footage of the greats - Christian Cullen, Zinzan Brooke, Wayne Shelford and Jonah Lomu; even with Daniel Carter's brilliance impossible to ignore; it's easy enough to declare Richie McCaw not only the greatest All Black there has ever been, but the greatest player.
Too early to declare that? Hardly, he'll play his 88th test this weekend and he's close to finishing his 10th season of international rugby.
Different eras, different set-ups of course, but McCaw's 87 tests equate to the 55 played by Colin Meads and the 53 played by Gareth Edwards.
There are more tests in the professional era, but they are disproportionately brutal. The explosive power of the athletes and the frequency of the collisions take a tough toll - only the most resourceful, the best conditioned, the toughest can make it through 10 years.
On longevity, a critical component in establishing a player's worth, McCaw matches the best.
Where he surpasses everyone is impact. In his 87 tests to date, he's not had a bad one. Some have been relatively quiet by his standards - but only some.
The rest of the world talks about McCaw being a cheat not because they believe it necessarily, but because they need referees to be conned into reducing the influence of the All Black No7. The obsession with his alleged infringements is the ultimate compliment, irrefutable proof McCaw is the one player the rest of the planet fears.
They fear him because, almost without fail, he is the most influential player on the field - either the man of the match or desperately close. His consistency of excellence is staggering, as is the fact there have been, arguably, three tests where he has been the gymnastics equivalent of a perfect 10 - against Australia in Brisbane, 2006, South Africa in Cape Town, 2008, and against the Lions in Wellington, 2005.
Carter stole the headlines in that Wellington test with his three tries and 33 points. Watch a video of it again and see McCaw play out of his skin.
What makes his effort scarcely believable is the number of game plans, rule interpretations and coaches McCaw has operated under. He has advanced, he has evolved and every time the game has changed, McCaw has adapted.
He was the ball scavenger extraordinaire in his early days. Now he's a ball carrier, a big defender, a lineout leaper and a kick-off chaser.
He scores tries, makes passes and as he showed in Cape Town two years ago, he can even thread the perfect grubber through the tightest defence. He can be whatever he's asked to be.
Those who favour the work of Jones as superior on account of his ability to master both the openside and blindside should remember that the switch to No 6 was born out of necessity.
Injury robbed the great man of a yard of pace while the arrival of Josh Kronfeld was another gentle shove towards the blindside.
McCaw has held his form and held his place in the most aerobically demanding, physically punishing position. There has been no reason for him to move - he's the best openside ... end of story. Yet there is little doubt that, if McCaw had been asked, he would have re-invented himself just as effectively on the blindside. He probably could have been an equally good No8.
The icing on the McCaw cake is his unparalleled ability to return from injury with no drop in performance. Others take a game or two to find their test form - not McCaw.
He has shown time and again he can spend five weeks on the sidelines and, first game back, he's as good as always.
There hasn't been anyone like him.
No matter how compelling the case for Richie McCaw as the world's best player, there's just one small thing ...
It's not even the fact that comparisons are odious and comparisons of different eras and positions are even more so. How, for example, do you decide whether McCaw was a better player than the great Christian Cullen?
The question - perhaps the only relevant question - is which player would have won more matches for you.
Which is why Daniel Carter is still the greatest I have ever seen. Carter can and does win games in the following ways: Scoring a try Kicking goals Dropping goals Kicking from hand Making a break Setting up a try He has a fend, a sidestep and that uncoachable ability to find space and to produce a piece of irresistible brilliance that can decide a match.
In saying this, there are some disclaimers to be made. McCaw has been in truly wonderful form. This writer has chosen him as man of the match the last two times he assessed All Black tests.
McCaw has also finally supplanted Michael Jones in the pantheon of the greats. An astonishing player, Jones could run and pass like a back, had genuine pace, leapt in the lineouts, tackled like a barn collapsing on you and had a gift for reading a game and other players - team-mates and opposition.
There is no question Jones could have shone in the modern game, particularly the latest incarnation. But having seen McCaw, in truly remarkable fashion, re-model himself from a ball-grubbing, on-the-deck specialist to a ball-runner, creator and finisher as well as keeping his King Of The Turnovers status - I have to admit McCaw has now overtaken him.
The modern game is now so fast, so taxing and so punishing in the collision areas that you have to tend towards McCaw. He has also been at the top of his form, unlike Carter.
However, we are discussing class, not form. If there was a last-minute, difficult penalty kick to win a game, would Richie McCaw kick it?
McCaw was on the field in 2007 when the All Blacks cried out for direction and leadership at the end of that World Cup quarter-final. Carter was in the stand. We'll never know if an unsubbed/uninjured Carter would have made the difference. There is strong suspicion he might.
That unflappable nature and innate ability to make the right tactical decisions - to create the half-chance of salvation - is a Carter strongpoint, even notwithstanding a bad day at the office.
Carter has the cliched asset of ice water in the veins; a clinical ability to identify and execute the right play.
It's all very well to say McCaw played out of his skin when Carter produced that famous 11/10 performance against the Lions in 2005. You could say the same of all the All Black forwards. If the forwards don't win the ball, you don't win a game of rugby - that still stands.
But someone still has to actually win the match by scoring the points and creating opportunity to do so. Dan Carter does that. So does McCaw - the contention is simply that, out of these two brilliant players, Carter does it more often and in more ways.
Carter has 1104 points in 72 tests and will surely beat Jonny Wilkinson's record as the highest scorer of all time. He has already scored at an average of 15 points per test. McCaw's average: less than 1 point per match.
Of course rugby is more than just scoring points - but the argument still holds that Carter, excellent on the tackle and in the rucks/turnover phases, can win a game in more ways; more often than McCaw.