Thursday Aug 25, 2010
While one of the most apparent traits of the All Blacks has been the fact that the team has grown as a collective unit, beyond all the teams stars, standing above them all like a colossus is their captain Richie McCaw.
Take away either McCaw or Dan Carter, and the team would fall apart detractors would mumble.
Whether that is the case with Carter will be proven in Sydney when the world’s new record test points scorer (in terms of national sides) takes a back seat and Aaron Cruden receives his first test start.
But what has been notable at stages throughout this season and during tests is that Carter has been able to have ‘off periods’ and the potency of the team has not been dramatically affected.
There is now irrefutable evidence that the two Canterbury stars are not heads and shoulders above their All Black team-mates.
Mils Muliaina, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Brad Thorn, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock would all be considered for a World XV.
For McCaw, much of his impact this season has come from the fact that the All Blacks back row has a balance that allows the captain to pick and choose where his impact is needed most.
Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino have been dominant forces this year, and in particular McCaw’s provincial partner has been seen to do the dirty work to allow McCaw to ply his dark arts.
While there is no doubt that McCaw is irreplaceable to the All Blacks and no doubt their ability may be lessened without their captain on the pitch, the cold hard fact that is of little solace to opposition teams is that when the mercurial openside is playing, his side seem to be all but unbeatable.
Two things stood out when thinking of McCaw.
The first was a comment by an unnamed former test coach that the All Blacks captain was probably the first player in the world who would not only waltz into any test side, but would automatically earn the captain’s armband in any team.
The second was a comment by this writer, who in quiet awe watching the Soweto test mumbled “McCaw is far and away the best player in the world”, and was surprised when the bulk of the South African viewing audience around me added comments such as “then some” and “he’s too good by bloody half!”
Richie McCaw, who equaled Sean Fitzpatrick’s record of leading the All Blacks in 51 tests, has grown immensely in recent years, and many believe it is the direct result of the dramatic lessons the rugby stage has forced him to learn.
The stunned look on the captain’s face when confronted by the world after the 20-18 loss to France, the expression of frustration when watching from the sidelines as his All Blacks get beaten by the Wallabies 34-19 in Sydney.
McCaw has had some difficult moments as leader of this team.
But the lessons have clearly been learnt.
There is a belief, but that aspect is not anywhere approaching arrogance, but rather a self confidence in himself, his captaincy, but more importantly the men around him.
One key aspect of the All Blacks, long considered a weakness in an otherwise impressive arsenal, has been the so called lack of ability to change the gameplan.
Yet there has been evidence throughout this Investec Tri Nations that this is not the case, and while all involved with the team deserve credit with this, ultimately there is one man on the field who at the end of the day makes the call.
His leadership has been evidenced during All Blacks training sessions, where as well as taking part, his growing influence is seen in the way he interacts with his troops and with the coaching staff.
Even the way he deals with referee’s has evolved, and despite the typical calls of McCaw being a cheat, he is ever the statesmen when explaining his captaincy.
"If you go in gun shy you're not going to have an impact," McCaw said.
"I think the big thing is to understand where you sit and what you're going to get away with and what you're not. As long as you're not putting the team under heaps of pressure you've got to still be at the point of knowing what you can get away with and what you can't and the odd thing you might get wrong."
And he admits that he quickly adapts on the spot.
"I always think the things I'm trying to do are the right things and if he's penalising me for some reason I think 'geez I'm not going to get away with that today' or 'that's not going to work with this ref'. Each ref is a little bit different. I have a fairly good understanding of where they'll sit, just through experiences."
Many say that McCaw’s ultimate judgement will come next year with a World Cup on home soil, when he takes what is currently the world’s best team into the mental pressure cooker that is trying to break what is arguably sport’s biggest drought.
McCaw, and his team, have changed in a manner beyond the expectations of their coaches and fans, and as it seems as the captain continues to etch his place in the pantheon, so does the team he leads.