Friday, November 19, 2010

Squadron leader in full flight
The Irish Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2010

RUGBY: IRELAND V NEW ZEALAND: Johnny Watterson talks to Richie McCaw who, at 29 years of age, shares the All Black Test record of 92 caps

IT WAS nine years ago but Richie McCaw squeezes up his broad face and thinks back to his first cap as a 20-year-old in an All Black shirt. It was at the old Lansdowne Road. He was a couple of years out of school, still looking like the head boy but already sharing the aggression and breakdown bullying that has drawn admirers, not least of all from New Zealand. That day McCaw and the All Blacks were chasing Ireland’s 14-point lead. “Jeez, this is a horrible way to start Test rugby,” he recalls thinking.

An hour or so later the rugby world had begun to spin correctly. The All Blacks won to keep their pristine record over Ireland intact. McCaw, then playing at number eight, picked up his first Test man-of-the-match award. More have followed.

In 2005 he switched to seven and patented how the modern openside flanker should play. At 29 years old he now shares the All Black Test record of 92 caps with fullback Mils Muliaina, surpassing too Sean Fitzpatrick’s records for the most appearances as an All Blacks Test captain and most successful All Blacks Test captain.

Cripes, they’ve even made the keen pilot an honorary squadron leader of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. McCaw can shoot ’em down.

“It was a pretty awesome experience to run out for the first time in a Test match at a place like Lansdowne Road, it was pretty special so I have pretty good memories of it,” says McCaw.
“I remember it as the first time that I got to play with a guy like Jonah (Lomu) and some of those other guys. If I remember rightly he scored a pretty easy try at some point.
“I had watched those guys on TV as a school kid. Then all of a sudden, pretty quickly after school, I was standing there about to run out with those guys on the team. You can stand there in awe or you can just get on with it.”

McCaw is a get-on-with-it type of person. Brian O’Driscoll being speared into the ground like a fence post by Kevin Mealamu and Tana Umaga; Jamie Heaslip’s knee on McCaw’s head last summer. You could come around to thinking there is a niggle between the sides. Then again Ireland’s record of never having beaten them seems absurd enough for outbreaks of aggression.
“I obviously annoyed him (Heaslip) somehow, didn’t I?” says McCaw, not at all offended. “You just move on. I don’t think too much about it. I don’t know what others think but what happens out on the field stays there. I’m sure he probably regrets it. He got sent off and put pressure on his team. I’m sure he won’t do that again. As I say, I’ve come up against all sorts of things in the last few years. You just move on.”

There is an appreciable edge to the All Blacks. Backrow Kieran Read and loosehead prop Tony Woodcock are in the room with McCaw. They are giving but not overly generous, positive enough to be polite but not effusive as to arm any Irish player with pre-match confidence.
Heaslip we now know “has some ability . . . is a biggish man . . . has some presence.”

Admiration leaks out for South Africa’s Pierre Spies but you can understand why McCaw is not enthusiastic about talking up opponents. As much as Ireland hope to win, New Zealand are in possession of a record no captain wishes to blemish. The longer it lasts, the more obstinate the All Blacks will be in defending it.

“Thanks for bringing it up,” says McCaw. “Look, I don’t want to be (the captain to lose the record). End of story. Just not wanting it and making sure it doesn’t happen are very different. We want to make sure we are better than last week and perform to go and win. That’s our role and you don’t think about other stuff.”

Twice IRB Player of the Year, McCaw is, well, incomparable. His arcing status and record setting with the best team in the world, though, doesn’t muddle thinking. There is respect.

“When we look at the Irish team there are a lot of guys who are still playing good rugby,” he says. “Especially guys in the backs like D’Arcy, O’Driscoll and O’Gara. They have played a lot of rugby and are pretty classy. Like they did in the second half in New Zealand in June, we started to give them a bit of an easy ride and they made us pay for it. If we do that again we will be in trouble.”

Ah yes, trouble. Richie McCaw’s middle name.

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