Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pride runs high in Richie McCaw country By Max Bania Tuesday October 25, 2011 Source: ONE Sport

We've long since run out of titles to bestow upon Richie McCaw. But we keep saying them anyway, because it makes us feel good.

All Black legend. Hero. Sporting demi-God. World champion. National treasure.
Or, as he's known in Kurow, Richard.

We're a proud nation right now but - as my colleague and I are about to discover - few are as proud as the 339 residents of the Otago farming community now better known as Richie McCaw Country.

That's the slogan that's branded across a poster in the shop front of the Valley Cafe, as well as most other businesses down the main street.

It features two smiling photos of Richie - one presumably taken on or shortly after his All Blacks debut, the other a primary school photo of a young and surprisingly-scrawny Richie in his club colours.

"He's just such a tough bugger, that Richie", says cafe owner Steve Hotton, who's come out onto the street to meet us.

The man the Carisbrook faithful called the White Pointer should know: he played 146 games at prop for Otago before heading offshore in 1994.

"When he went down in the last five, ten minutes last night, I felt for him."
"You could just see how buggered he was. Absolutely. But hey, he got up and kept going".
Steve admits to being a touch under the weather, but that's alright because so is everyone else.

Further down the road we find a makeshift shrine to the All Blacks captain and hometown hero where a dozen or so locals are milling around.

It's just a few hay bales stacked high with a likeness of McCaw painted on the side, topped with a giant replica world cup made from spare parts in some bloke's shed - including road cones and flower pots - but that rather nicely sums up the "number eight wire" approach to things around here.

It was put together by Kurow farmer Roger Slee, whose son was regularly terrorised by a pint-sized Richie.

"He used to come home and say 'that bloody Richie McCaw crash-tackled me for no reason!'"
"He was only five, tackling 13 and 14 year olds. He was a tough boy".

As we're talking to Roger, Richie's cousin Gavin wanders past with son Austin.
He's the last of the McCaws to farm in these parts - Richie's parents now live in Christchurch and the golden boy himself seldom returns - and Austin has dreams of following him out of the valley and into a black jersey.

Everyone is in agreement that what stood Richie apart from a very young age was his toughness - both physical and mental.

"He was absolutely fearless, tough, he had everything", says Richie's first coach, Barney McCone, who has also happened to wander past by chance.
"But the biggest thing about him was that he had brains and he used them."

We ask Barney to take us to Kurow Domain, where Richie spent his formative rugby years. He's happy to oblige.
It's a quintessential New Zealand country ground, overgrown with the rugby season over, lined with hills complete with grazing sheep.
It does boast an electronic scoreboard - "more modern than Carisbrook's", Barney jokes.

This is grassroots rugby at its very essence. I think of Richie's journey from charging around this paddock to holding the Webb Ellis trophy aloft and for a brief moment I'm not ashamed to say the lower lip wobbles. It's been an emotional 24 hours for every All Blacks fan
Barney lightens the mood with an anecdote dating back to 1993 when Graham Henry's Auckland side trained here in the lead-up to a Ranfurly Shield challenge against North Otago, some 60km down the road in Oamaru.

"Sean Fitzpatrick and Inga Tuigamala were training with the team and thought it'd be a laugh to try and run up there", he says, pointing to a large, steep hill directly behind the ground.
"They got about halfway to the top before giving up through exhaustion", he says, with a hint of glee.
"We enjoyed that".

The shield challenge itself is probably best known for Auckland's 139-5 winning margin. What's not as well known was that the openside flanker in that curtain-raiser game was an 11-year-old Richie McCaw.

"Graham Henry would've watched that game" says Barney. "I often wonder whether he knew he was looking at his World Cup winning captain".

It'd be remiss of me not to stop in at one of Kurow's two pubs on the way back out of town.
It's largely empty on a Monday afternoon, but thirty seconds behind me are a group of local lads who look like their last drinking session had only ended hours before. They order a round of beers and resume the positions from last night.

"It was pretty quiet in here during the game", the proprietor tells me, "and it just kept getting quieter the longer it went on".
"I think relief was the main emotion when we won it. So proud of Richie."

If I'd had a penny for every time I've heard that today, I'd probably be able to buy Kurow. But the spirit and pride of the townsfolk is something that's all their own.
It's certainly not hard to see how they produced a man of the calibre of Richard Hugh McCaw.

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