PHIL GIFFORD 23/09/2012
OPINION: Richie McCaw is the greatest All Black of all time.
I never dreamed I'd ever write that phrase. In more than 30 years of speaking at rugby clubs the easiest question to answer was, “Who's the best All Black you've ever seen?” My reply was always “Colin Meads”.
Not that anything's happened to change my opinion about Meads.
I first saw the man they call Pinetree play for King Country in Paeroa in 1960, and was on the press bench at Eden Park in 1971 when he played his last test.
He was an extraordinary footballer who people in the media like myself have almost treated unfairly by dwelling on the hugely entertaining legends that grew around him, rather than his staggering abilities.
It is hard to resist, as just one example, a story his close friend Kel Tremain told, of how, after Meads was kicked in the head in a test in Paris in 1967, he had his lacerated scalp bandaged and then worked his way through the French pack one by one, exacting terrible revenge. “One of them asked him why he was hitting him,” said Tremain, “and Piney said, ‘Well I know it was ONE of you buggers'.” It's less colourful to note that Meads wasn't just a form of divine retribution in footy boots, although, if the need arose, he could be.
He was a massively gifted player, who years before Sonny Bill Williams was even a glint in a marketing guru's eye, could, and did, easily hold the ball in one hand. Meads could run and pass beautifully, and even, at the risk of ruining his reputation, sidestep. But his forte was the hand to hand stuff, and I'd seriously suggest that if a 1960s vintage Meads had been in the All Black pack in Dunedin last weekend, the Springbok dominance of the mauls would have come to a grinding, painful halt. In the modern game Meads would be just as effective as he was in the day, probably as a No 8 or blindside flanker. Just as a terminator like Jerome Kaino discourages short side attacks, heaven help the halfback or No 8 who tried to sneak down the Meads side of a scrum.
So why, if Meads was that good, am I now saying McCaw is the greatest?
I wouldn't have suggested it even a couple of years ago, but after the World Cup last year, and his other-worldly effort in Dunedin, it's time to reassess.
For a start, McCaw has done something so amazing it's almost freakish. At the very highest level he's reinvented himself as a player.
When he started his All Black career he was a terrific fetcher, and the best in the world at winning turnover ball.
He had a place in the All Blacks for life if he'd never done anything else.
But along the way he decided he could add more by becoming a carrier of the ball, to the point where he now smashes up field for metre after metre in every test he plays.
Then there's his captaincy. Almost from the time he got back from the embarrassment of the 2007 World Cup quarterfinal, people in Canterbury rugby noticed a new steely edge to McCaw. By the time the final was reached in 2011 he was so much his own man he ignored instructions from the coaches' box to kick long, and chose to grind it out. The last 30 minutes, he told coach Graham Henry, had been the best, most enjoyable, of his life. Because he presents in interviews as easy-going and non-threatening, as he actually is when he's not wearing a rugby jersey, it's easy to overlook how very, very tough McCaw is.
He played the whole World Cup campaign on a fractured foot, he's regularly smacked over by thugs like Dean Greyling, and he shrugs the attacks off.
You could add superhuman self-control to his attributes.
The only time he's ever thrown a punch on the field was to stop the South African slob who attacked referee Dave McHugh in Durban.
It's McCaw's captaincy that moves him into the greatest spot for me.
Ignore the cheap shots by English media hacks too lazy to stop recycling the “McCaw's a cheat” mantra - he's not only our best player, he's also our best captain.
And if you don't believe me, take the advice of the late, great Fred Allen, and, as he always said, “have a look at the bloody record”.
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