Thursday, December 16, 2010

Richie McCaw, the best flanker of the professional era
Adam Wakefield

The crowd seethes in one congruous mass, willing the home side to victory. Against them is an enemy akin to the Vikings, raiders of the north. Recognised as barbarians by their victims and heroes by those who support them, they are the furthest thing from an unorganised rabble. A man of tremendous size, playing for the home team, goes to ground clutching the holy grail, and before he even has time to think is swarmed by those who seek to dispossess him of it. His allies arrive with battle ensuing, titanic struggles of flesh and brawn. Suddenly, the referee’s whistle pierces the clamour. As both those trying to get and keep the ball rise, a luminous figure begins to take shape. Clasped in his hands, as if he is bending all his will to keeping the ball, is Richie McCaw and he has just affected another turn over.

It is a common tail, one which the scribes of the international game have been telling since his debut in 2001. Josh Kronfeld famously said of his selection in John Mitchell’s squad: “You might as well give All Black jerseys to everybody. The fact they picked guys off one NPC season is incredible.” He has often been referred to as a cheat or a genius, an illusionist of the highest skill who seems unbound by the petty laws of physics … and rucking. He is the most capped All Black of all time, along with never-tiring race horse Mills Muliaina with 94 appearances. Under McCaw’s captaincy the All Blacks have lost only seven Tests from a total of 57, an 88% win record. He has won four Super Rugby titles, four domestic championships, seven Tri-Nations and has just been named the IRB Player of the Year for the second year in succession (while last year’s award was fortunate), and for the third time in total. The only thing he hasn’t won is a World Cup, and next year will most likely be his real chance.

McCaw was the man who scored the try that broke Springbok hearts at Soccer City earlier this year. Every opposition team talk will say in one way or another, “we have to stop McCaw”. He can forage like Heinrich Brussouw, run around like a no 8 and tackle as if he had lived the life of an outside centre. At over 1.8 metres tall and hundred kilograms, he also offers a formidable physical presence especially in the contact area.

His other great trait over a long and successful career has been to slow down enemy ball, living life on the precipice of legality. He has traipsed the laws of the game for so long he seems to be immune to the reality of the referee. One fixture earlier this year saw the All Blacks warned for slowing down the ball, and a yellow card would ensue if it happened again. Ten minutes later, McCaw was the one to transgress and apart from a penalty, know other punishment was meted out. His skill lies in being able to master the referee and the confines by which the match official is regulating the game, allowing him that “extra” where it matters, be it time of space. New Zealand love him, and if he were to run for president, he would split the vote of the status quo.
The professional era, which began in 1996, has produced many fine sixes and sevens from Juan Smith to George Smith to Lewis Moody. Even with players such as these, McCaw stands tall among them all. He has performed at the top level of the game for nearly a decade, and along with Dan Carter are certainties to be ranked as two of the game’s greatest professional players. They also earn the highest salary in New Zealand rugby, with captain and flyhalf taking home NZ$750 000 (R3.9 million) a year excluding endorsements.

The last thing for him and this All Black side to is get their hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy, and with South Africa as possible semi-final opponents, the expectation of the nation will expect as they have come to over the year. This All Black machine, in part constructed by Graham Henry, is the side McCaw has been managing since 2006 when he was appointed full time captain. It is no coincidence that as McCaw has continued to excel, the All Black machine has continued to steam role their opposition. What awaits them now is destiny. And with McCaw at the helm, it is going to take one hell of an effort to stop them.

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