RICHARD KNOWLER IN DUBLIN - Fairfax Media
It is a debate that can begin over a few quiet beers in the evening and still be growing legs at midnight. While comparing players from differing eras can be a fruitless exercise, agreeing on the value of the incomparable Richie McCaw can usually be quickly settled among even the most ornery of rugbyheads.
In 100-plus years, the game has continued to evolve, forcing combatants to change their body sizes and skill sets; halfbacks weigh as much as props did a generation ago, locks can now swing long spiral passes off both hands and wings regularly clean out rucks.
Yet, despite the switch in trends and body shapes, when it comes to selecting New Zealand's greatest openside flanker, surely Richard Hugh McCaw reigns supreme above them all.
For sheer longevity and the ability to habitually churn out consistently high performances under heavy fire, he is without peer: Michael Jones, "Bunny" Tremain, Josh Kronfeld, Ian Kirkpatrick, Graham Mourie, Waka Nathan, Jock Hobbs – the list could go on and on – all were great players but none matched the exploits of McCaw.
Jones' supporters will note the explosive Samoan-born Aucklander remains our greatest No 7, but the numbers just don't stack up. Granted, he had to overcome two serious knee injuries that robbed him of his pace and forced him to blindside flanker later in 55-test career, but McCaw's figures are far more compelling.
Since his test debut in Dublin almost nine years ago to the day, he has amassed an additional 91 caps and dominated the No 7 jersey from 2003. Challengers have come and gone but all have bowed to the Kurow-born fetcher.
McCaw has the lot: good handling skills, vision, he's a master scavenger on the ground and is not just accurate in defence – instead he uses his bulk to belt opponents. His pace around the park is another great attribute and, in the last couple of seasons, he has been recognised as one of the world's greatest captains.
The 29-year-old may yet get to eclipse the incomparable Colin Meads as our greatest-ever player, but few could deny he is the best No 7 this country has manufactured.
AT A GLANCE
Top five All Black flankers
1 Richie McCaw, Tests: 92 (2001-present). Tries: 19
2 Michael Jones, Tests: 55 (1987-98). Tries: 13
3 Kel Tremain, Tests: 38 (1959-68). Tries: 9
4 Josh Kronfeld, Tests: 54 (1995-2000). Tries: 14
5 Ian Kirkpatrick, Tests: 39 (1967-77). Tries: 16
McCAW'S TOP THREE TESTS
vs Australia in Brisbane, 2006. All Blacks won 13-9McCaw was dynamite, saving tries, creating vital turnovers and inspiring a gritty defensive effort in the final minutes
vs South Africa in Durban, 2007. All Blacks won 26-21Having copped the usual dirt from the Boks, the resilient McCaw remained a defensive menace and scored a vital late try
vs England in Auckland, 2008. All Blacks won 37-20England may have been rubbish, but McCaw was definitely not. Following his form in the opening domestic tests, Steve Hansen labelled him New Zealand's greatest No 7