26 October 2010
By David Ferguson
RICHIE McCaw will return to the land of his Scottish forefathers next month with the potential to equal the All Blacks cap record and lead New Zealand to an unprecedented level of successive wins at Murrayfield.
The skipper spoke to The Scotsman yesterday from Hong Kong, where the All Blacks are preparing for the first of five Test matches on consecutive weekends. This Saturday they face familiar foe Australia in a game designed both to help with the exposure of rugby in Asia and earn a significant few extra coppers for the respective nations, but McCaw made it clear that the following week's match against England at Twickenham is what he considers to be the opening match of a European tour that he would like to see end with only a third Grand Slam of the British Isles.
McCaw's great-great grandfather Alexander McCaw left Scotland in the 19th century to set up home in New Zealand and while stressing that he prefers to adopt a "one game at a time" approach, the current IRB World Player of the Year acknowledged that the possibility of claiming his 92nd cap, equalling the record held by Sean Fitzpatrick, and leading the All Blacks to an 18th straight win - beating the target of 17 set by New Zealand in the 1960s and South Africa under Nick Mallet in 1997-98 - would ensure another memorable trip to Scotland.
Currently on 89 caps, McCaw said:
"I played in my second Test against Scotland and I have some pretty good memories of my first tour and playing at Murrayfield, so if it happens there that'd be cool.
"It (Fitzpatrick's cap tally] would be a nice record to get at some point, but those sorts of things you celebrate after the fact. I'm not too worried about it. It would be nice to get, but it's all about the team doing the job first and if that comes in the third game or the fifth is not a biggie. It's not the first thing you think about.
"I'd definitely prefer the World Cup (to 18 straight Test wins], if it was a choice. But those things only come about if you do the job right week by week. I know that sounds clichéd, but if we were to win this game against Australia and then get a Grand Slam, which is what we're aiming to do, well then that takes care of itself. But right now we've got to focus on getting this weekend right. Then next year we can worry about the next one.
"These are all things that are nice to reflect on later, but I don't get too carried with anything like that."The last two meetings between Scotland and New Zealand have been somewhat strained affairs.
The Scots, coached by Frank Hadden, elected to play a largely second-string side in the World Cup meeting in 2007, to save players for the crunch game with Italy the following week, and were comfortably beaten by the McCaw-captained side 40-0.
In the the last encounter the All Blacks left most of their top names on the bench or in the West Stand. McCaw was one leading figure who came off the bench in that game and the flanker scored his only try against Scotland in a 32-6 win. The 29-year-old acknowledged that New Zealand were likely to use all of their squad again, but they have named a smaller party of 30 this time, which means Scotland are certain to face a stronger Kiwi 22 at Murrayfield on 13 November.
He said: "Five Tests in a row isn't easy so you've got to make sure that you do things right, and I'm sure the whole squad of 30 will get a crack at some point, so you need guys who maybe didn't play the week before to fit in and by the time you get to the last match it's a matter of making sure we're fresh and going out and performing.
"I don't know what we're going to do when it comes to the Scottish game, but injuries are part of the game so you've got to have guys who have the ability to step in there. The only way you get to learn what Test rugby is all about is to have a crack.
"So it's whether you put an untried guy out in a Test match to start or you give him time off the bench, or change half the team or one or two changes a week. That's what we've got to weigh up.
"We're pretty lucky in that we've only got one new cap in this squad (Sonny Bill Williams]. The rest have all experienced Test rugby before and we have guys who perhaps haven't played a lot of Test rugby this year who are excited about being in the team. If they get their chance I'm sure they'll take it."
McCaw would not be drawn much either on whether he felt that Scotland's now having a coach in Andy Robinson who knows what it takes to beat a relatively recent All Blacks side would have a bearing on this, the 28th meeting of the nations.
"I'm not sure too much about Andy, but certainly the coaches are the ones who instill belief in the players. If they doubt that you can win then it sows doubt in the players, but as long as the coach instills the belief that how you can play will be good enough to win then that provides a big start.
"It doesn't mean it's always going to happen," he added, "but that certainly helps. What Andy does I'm not sure but he's obviously got a lot of experience and I'm sure that will help too."
McCaw has again proven himself to be the world's leading forward, if not the most valuable player in global rugby, with his ability to adapt again to the ever-changing laws of the breakdown.
He will always be the target of criticism for his ability to play the game right on the margins of what is legal and what is not, with the usual claim spouted again recently that some referees are in awe of McCaw and so do not penalise him as much as they would.
My own view is that he merely adapts quicker and more effectively than most to refereeing interpretations. McCaw admitted that he was a bit concerned at changes to interpretations this season, acknowledging perhaps that the move to force the tackler away from the tackled player when they hit the ground had perhaps made him less destructive. However, such is his attitude that he has grown to like the change and believes it has helped make the game more enjoyable for players and spectators. With Robinson's desire for fluid rugby, it promises a thrilling encounter at Murrayfield.
That highlights the honest All Black in McCaw, further exemplified by the way he spoke of attitude being the chief reason behind the current team's rise back to the top of the world rankings.
Despite it being arguably the most frustrating aspect of New Zealand life in recent times, he calmly answered questions on why New Zealand peak between World Cups and have failed to deliver the performances in the tournament since their first and only win in the inaugural competition of 1987. McCaw humbly stressed that his side, despite their phenomenal current run of 15 straight wins, did not view themselves as impregnable.
"Every team can be beaten; there's no doubt about that especially in the games we're playing on this tour," he said. "If you don't turn up and get it dead right you can be beaten and you certainly don't go out there thinking you are a whole lot better than everyone else.
"You go out to put your game into practice and if you do that then you back yourself to win, but some days teams don't allow you to do that very well, and I refer back to the last two games in the Tri-Nations, where we were prevented from doing that. Of course you go into the game thinking that it's going to be good enough, otherwise you'd have come with something else, but as soon as you start thinking you're better than anyone else or you've won a few games in the past then that's the real quick way to come unstuck I think.
"We've always been lucky to have a good pool of players to pick from. I look at the squad of 30 we've got at the moment and there is real competition for spots.
"There have been guys who have come back in like Isaia Toeava who has been out injured and is now looking real sharp, and that has driven a real high standard.
But I also think it's attitude, as I've said, and a bit of ambition and drive is what drives those sorts of standards."
He concluded: "We have a definite goal on this tour, and through the five Tests, to improve because where we are this year won't be good enough next year.
"If there is one lesson from the World Cup four years ago, it is that we had a pretty good tour of the northern hemisphere before it and played some pretty good rugby, but we didn't perhaps push on the following year when it counted.
"You talk about the importance of World Cups and four-year cycles.
"Well, obviously they are important, but the All Blacks' attitude is that it's not acceptable to turn up and not perform this year or next, you've got to do it every week.
"That's what drives you and that's why you don't get too ahead of yourselves I suppose."