DAVID LONG - Sunday News
With 2010 put to bed and the focus on the World Cup intensifying, Richie McCaw reflects proudly on a year gone and is excited rather than nervous about the year ahead.
The All Blacks captain is taking a well-earned break after a season when they won 13 of their 14 tests, including taking out the Tri-Nations series, retaining the Bledisloe Cup and completing another Grand Slam tour.
McCaw also picked up the IRB Player of the Year award for a third time, a remarkable feat considering that no other player has won it more than once.
But while he was internationally recognised as the best player of the world, at the New Zealand awards it was is Crusaders team-mate Kieran Read who collected the honours.
However, missing out on that isn't something McCaw will be dwelling on over the summer months.
"The year was great," McCaw said of 2010. "You learn over the years to judge it on what the team does. Individuals come second and I know individual awards are nice.
"I'm stoked for Kieran because he's had a great year.
"You can pick a lot of guys out that have had great years but what I'm really stoked about is the team has done well.
"We set out to achieve what we wanted to and we pretty much ticked every box.
"So that's what I've got great satisfaction out of. Individual awards are cool to get but every person that's been involved in the All Blacks – coaches included – will know how much they put into the team to achieve what we did.
"Everyone has got to take satisfaction out of that, but for a guy like Kieran it's great that he gets rewarded because he's been phenomenal."
As well as the results, what was particularly pleasing was the way the All Blacks played last year.
Often they were playing a brand of rugby streets ahead of any other international side. In the loose forwards McCaw has established a combination with Read and Jerome Kaino that is the envy of the rugby world.
"The three of us have played a lot of rugby together over the last year, so you learn how each other operates," McCaw said.
"But we've also had Liam [Messam], Braidy [Daniel Braid] on the tour and we all get pretty tight.
"You've got to understand each other because any one of us could be playing and you've got to be able to work together."
Other areas of the squad are now expected to pick up on that.
"We've put a challenge out to all of the units that have to operate together, to talk about how they can be better and that's been good for us," McCaw said.
"I enjoy playing with those guys. They're all top players, they do their job and it's great coming off the field knowing the three of us have had a big influence over what we needed to do."
It is a common thought that what happens in a year before a World Cup is easily forgotten. Many countries, including Australia, treated 2010 as a trial year where they focussed on getting their squad right rather than on winning every test.
McCaw says that's not the case for the All Blacks. For him last year will always be a memorable one.
"It will never count for nothing, because for the All Blacks every year – no matter whether it's a World Cup year or not – they've got to go out and perform," McCaw said.
"Other teams probably get a bit of scope to not have to do that but with the All Blacks you don't.
"Yes, this year is going to be the year that's in the front of everyone's mind but what will be will be and we'll give ourselves every opportunity and do everything we can to win the thing," he said.
The All Blacks will attempt to win the World Cup on home soil just as they did when the tournament was first held in 1987.
" I'm still bloody proud of what we did last year. We had a bit of a hiccup in 2009 but we rectified that. In 2008 we were pretty good also," McCaw said.
"That's the type of thing I'm proud of. I want to make sure we do the years inbetween right and then I want to win the World Cup and I'll be doing everything I can to make that happen.
"I would hate to win the World Cup when we've had crap years leading up to it.
"It's never just for nothing. We've kept the All Blacks at the top and at No 1 in the world. This year will have its challenges but I'd hate to be No 3 or No 4 and think it's still all right to win the World Cup. That's not the way Kiwis operate."
On last year's tour to the northern hemisphere coach Graham Henry was asked a few times how the team was tracking a year out from a World Cup this time compared to 2006.
He didn't really give a definitive answer but McCaw was more open believing the added experience the team now has is an advantage.
"It's different. We played really well at the end of 2006, we went into 2007 in good nick and were probably in the same shape as we are now," he said.
"But you've got to remember that there are a lot of players around who were there at the beginning of 2007 and they understand that whatever we've done [on the end-of-year tour] means bugger all for this year.
"We go into this year knowing we've got to be on the job, just like we were at the beginning of last year when we were thinking about how we can play better and what we need to do.
"You've just got to get excited about it [the World Cup] and see it as an opportunity.
"A lot of us are bloody lucky to get another go at it but nothing is for sure on that.
"Right up to the end of Super Rugby there will be players who played in the team last year who might not make it back into the squad.
"You've got to see it as an opportunity [to play in a World Cup] and once you get there, you give it everything you've got.
"But I would have been bloody disappointed if we had been prepared to accept losses and poor performances last year just so we could prepare for the World Cup."
With a record 94 tests under his belt, McCaw is set to raise a century in 2011. Given the demands of his job as an openside flanker, his durability has been as remarkable as his consistency.
Now he's got his feet up resting his body – and his mind – for their biggest challenge
McCaw spent Christmas with family in Christchurch and saw in the New Year in central Otago.
He'll start training again soon but won't join up with the Crusaders until the end of the month.
"You've got to take a break and sometimes getting well away from it is the best thing you can do to help your rugby," he said.
"Even though I'm taking a break I still want to go for a run and earn a beer every now and then. But I don't have to do that – I can do it when I feel like it.
"You don't have to be up and down a rugby field and going flat out. It's nice not having to be anywhere and not having to train."
Henry uses fishing as his great escape from rugby, saying it's easy to forget about it all when he's got a rod in his hand.
For McCaw, gliding is his leisure activity of choice and it allows him to completely switch off.
Not surprisingly he's good at flying too – he's been made an honorary squadron leader in the New Zealand Air Force.
"That's where the gliding is great," he said. "I go down there and people just talk about gliding and stuff. I can totally get away from it.
"But I don't mind talking about rugby. I enjoy talking about it. It's my passion.
"There are times when I want to do my own thing but there are times when I'm quite happy to have a chat about it.
"It's nice to have a break but I still love talking about the opportunity this year – I like talking about what we might do and how I'm going to prepare for it."
You sense that McCaw, having turned 30 on New Year's eve, is approaching his third World Cup not only older but also wiser.