Friday Dec 10, 2010
Every day this week we feature the finalists for the Herald Sportsperson of the Year. The top sportsperson will be revealed in the Weekend Herald on Saturday.
It's a mark of Richie McCaw's standing in rugby that even a negative can be seen as a positive endorsement of his talents as a footballer.
Ask any All Black fan their biggest fear leading into next year's World Cup and, other than the team stumbling for a sixth successive time at a late stage, it is this: what happens if McCaw gets injured?
You can insert Dan Carter's name in that slot for variety, but we're talking McCaw for now, and it says plenty about the significance of the 10-year veteran of the All Black No 7 jersey.
He turns 30 on New Year's Eve, but McCaw's influence on any game he plays remains undiminished.
It has been some year for the caped Crusader.
Not only was he named the International Rugby Board Player of the Year for a record third time, but he overtook Sean Fitzpatrick as the man to have led the All Blacks in the most tests - his record now is 57 - and, along with fullback Mils Muliaina, overtook the same man as most-capped All Black.
Their mark now stands at 94, two ahead of the indefatigable Fitzpatrick, and by now it would be reasonable to expect McCaw's body to be feeling the strain of arguably rugby's most physically stressful position.
He's no longer the fresh-faced tyro who marked his test debut - before he had played Super Rugby - with a man-of-the-match performance against Ireland in 2001, but he remains the game's most dominant figure in all aspects, other than points scoring.
There is an indestructible quality about McCaw. Of course he's not, and has taken his share of bangs along the way. But out of the despair of the 2007 World Cup quarter-final loss to France, he has grown in stature as a leader.
This year the All Blacks played 14 tests. McCaw started every one, and was replaced just twice - four minutes from the end against South Africa in Wellington in July by Liam Messam, and after 57 minutes against Scotland on the end-of-year Grand Slam by Daniel Braid.
Otherwise, he's been out there leading by shining example. He's the player the opposition coaches like to attack for his work around the tackled ball area.
He's a lawbreaker, they scream. Gets away with murder.
So on that basis they'd never pick him if given the chance for their team, right? Like heck.
McCaw's rugby smarts mean he works out where each referee has drawn his line early on in a test and works to that line. It is a role which requires a certain pushing of the laws. If he wasn't pushing the laws, he would not be doing his job, as any opensider worth his salt appreciates.
In those 14 tests, McCaw scored three tries, taking him to 19 altogether. Those 19 include eight against Australia, two of which came this year, in the 49-29 demolition in Melbourne, and 12 minutes from the end of the thrilling 23-22 victory in Sydney.
There was another, in Soweto, as the All Blacks surged to a 29-22 win. As at Sydney, this McCaw effort was crucial, coming three minutes from the end, squeezing the ball down in a tight call by the corner flag as three defenders converged. So what's left for McCaw?
He'll reach his century of test caps, fitness permitting, in the World Cup semifinal next year. Then there's the World Cup itself, and the pressures of ending what will be a 24-year drought on home turf.
The All Black selectors have maintained they're confident in the players they have should anything happen to McCaw. Braid and Messam seem the frontrunners at the moment.
There are others too, all good footballers. But none are a McCaw, which is why the selectors, for all they doubtless deny it, could be forgiven for saying a quiet prayer before every game for which he pulls on a jersey next year.
By David Leggat
Who do you think is a worthy New Zealand Sportsperson of the Year for 2010? Email us at email@example.com.