Sunday, April 08, 2012

Richie McCaw flies high while footy's on hold BEN STANLEY   08/04/2012

Some time around the beginning of March, a shiny new French helicopter hovered over a big grassy area, just west of Christchurch International Airport.
At first glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The chopper was a sleek two-seated model, with a big open cockpit. It moved smoothly through the air before sweeping in for a gentle, balanced landing. The pilot checked his dials and gauges before flicking off the engine and giving a big thumbs up to his instructor, who was racing across the paddock to congratulate him on his first solo in a chopper.
The machine was a Guimbal Cabri G2, and the just-completed flight was the first solo that had taken place in the Southern Hemisphere in that particular model of helicopter.
The man behind the controls? Richie McCaw, All Blacks captain, 103-test cap veteran, Rugby World Cup champion, modern day New Zealand sporting hero.
Right then? Just an aviation nut with the smile of a bloke who had done something he'd never done before.
With a bad injury to his right foot he carried during last year's cup, McCaw is yet to get back on the rugby paddock in 2012.
While he has been easing himself back into training in recent weeks with the Crusaders, the All Blacks captain has had plenty of time up his sleeve over the summer. For a man like McCaw, who has a well-known love of gliding, getting up in the air was always going happen.
Pacific Helicopters instructor Terry Murdoch, who was taken for his first flight in an airplane by McCaw's father Donald more than 30 years ago, has been more than impressed with McCaw's skill in the new machine.
Murdoch has been flying choppers for 30 years, and teaching people to fly them for 18. The All Blacks No 7 is the guy with the least hours – fewer than 10 – that he's ever sent solo, the instructor believes.
"Really easy to teach, really eager to learn as well," he said. "He's like a big sponge; everything you tell him he just soaks up and takes on board. He's quite a natural as well.
"He's very much of the attitude, 'hey OK, I'm a good rugby player but you're the expert in aviation so I'm the boy here.' Just an absolute delight to teach to fly because he's got such a passion for it, and he's good at it."
McCaw, who will speak alongside word cup-winning coach Sir Graham Henry in a TestraClear-sponsored dinner evening in Auckland on April 19, is a man of few words; but those words gain a certain excitement any time you talk aviation.
"It was a matter of if I'm going to do it, I might as well get into it," he told the Sunday Star-Times.
"Not playing in the weekends, you've got a bit of time to spare.
"It's good fun. It's a bit trickier but it's been a good challenge. I didn't have to do all the tests because I did some with my fixed wing licence. Just got to do a couple more, and then we'll be dangerous."
Don't think for a minute that he has just had his head in the clouds since winning the Big One last October. He's champing at the bit to get back on the playing field.
And though previously targeting the Crusaders' round eight Super Rugby clash against the Stormers next weekend for a comeback, he admits it's more like "three or four more weeks" away. "I've been progressing slowly," he said.
"People ask when I'm going to be back and I'm reluctant to put time on it because I'm still not really 100 per cent sure.
"It's just a matter of progressing as you need to. From straight running to changing directions, I'm just doing that so hopefully before too long before I'll be back with boots on and training, getting match fit."
It goes without saying, but an All Blacks captain is never out of the spotlight. Recent reports that Italian club Treviso were keen to sign up both him and All Blacks teammate Dan Carter were the most recent instance of McCaw making the news.
And while the 31-year-old poured cold water on moving to Italy this season, McCaw, who is signed with the NZRU through to 2015, didn't want to rule it out at some point down the track.
"There's no doubt, it's nice to have that option," he said. "If you're going to get through to the next world cup, then that's something that, if it means carrying on playing at the level I need to be at, could be quite important.
"Probably more so just not playing, rather than a playing sabbatical. When that is, I'm not too sure. Before I get carried away with deciding, I want to get back into this year and this injury and get playing."
The more time he spends doing that, the less he'll be able to spend with a joystick between his legs and the wild blue yonder ahead of him. Rugby fans may be happy with that, but it's a fair guess to say the more balance there is between the two, the more likely we'll see McCaw taking to the field at the world cup in 2015.
To see Richie McCaw become the first New Zealander to fly a Guimbal Cabri G2 solo, go to

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