Monday, October 08, 2012

McCaw: "I constantly masked injury"

Richie McCaw's foot goes in the pool Rugby World Cup game against France, and he's forced to withdraw from the game against Canada. Dan Carter, who's played brilliantly against France, takes over as captain. After the captain's run the day before the game, Dan's practising his kicking, while Richie's watching lineouts at the other end of the field. Richie doesn't see Dan go down, doesn't hear him scream. It's only when he gets back to the changing-room that he finds out "DC's wrecked" - his tournament is over. The following is an extract from the chapter "What Else?" from Richie McCaw: The Open Side .
If I have to jump or run or push or tackle, I can do it - adrenaline's a great painkiller. But when play stops and I have to walk or jog to a lineout or scrum 20 metres away, I'm really struggling.
When I go to Dan's room that evening and sit beside his bed, [assistant coach] Wayne Smith is already there. He was going to go to see France versus Tonga but is too depressed.
He was catching while Dan was kicking. Dan was only going to do four. The first one flew like a wounded duck and so did the next two. Smithy was thinking that this was bloody strange - he'd caught a lot of Dan's practice kicks when [skills coach] Mick Byrne wasn't around, and could almost point Dan to either shoulder and Dan would hit it. Three duds in a row was really odd. The fourth one was worse, a duck hook that almost took out the corner post. And Dan went down in a screaming heap. Smithy said he thought Dan was joking, throwing a wobbly after missing so badly.
I don't know what to say to Dan, neither does Smithy. Here's a guy, a decent humble man, acknowledged to be the best of his generation, perhaps of any generation, who's been crocked at the top of his game just when he's about to perform on the biggest stage. He'd played at Cardiff but hadn't been right. Now he's missed what is probably his last shot at RWC glory. I guess I could say that there are other great players in his position, like Barry John and Jackie Kyle and Cliff Morgan, who never got to play in a Rugby World Cup either, yet are still regarded as the among the greatest. I don't think that would be any consolation right now.
After Smithy goes, Dan asks questions to which there are no answers. "Why? Why me? How did this happen? I was just kicking the ball, the same ball we used in the Super 15, the same routine I've done a thousand times." There's bugger all to say, except, "Oh, mate, I have no idea. I'm so sorry." Then he tells me that he used to think everything happened for a reason, but he can't believe that any more.
That Dalton image from '87. I've had the odd moment since Dan went down this afternoon where I thought, Jesus, it could be the two of us. But sitting with Dan, I know that it can't be me now. Can't happen. No moaning about my foot. Unlike Dan, I've still got a chance of playing and somehow, any old how, that's what I've got to do.
The game against Canada passes in a bit of a blur. The boys do really well to put 79 points on them, and Kieran manages 50 minutes before Jerome Kaino switches to No 8 and just carries on doing what he's been doing the whole tournament, the whole year - dominating the opposition in attack and defence.
JK's become a massive bullying presence in the middle of the park, and jeez, I so want to play with him and Kieran, with us all at the top of our games. Colin Slade, taking Dan's place, slots five goals from nine, but looks like a man who hasn't had a lot of game time and is down on confidence. The other worrying thing is that he comes off with some sort of leg strain, and Piri finishes as first five.
The same day we play Canada, there's an amazing spectacle at Eden Park, where 50,000 people turn out in the rain to watch the pool match between Samoa and Fiji. It makes us proud to be Kiwis - where else in the world could that possibly happen?
We head back to Auckland for the quarterfinal against Argentina and, for me anyway, it's like going into a bubble of hotel-bus-training ground that might last the next three weeks. We see a fantastic RWC festival unfolding around us on television. This week we're at Spencer on Byron at Takapuna, but even when we're at the Heritage, a few hundred metres from the Cloud and Queens Wharf, there's no chance of me going there.
Apart from the attention I'd attract, I can't walk properly most of the time and I've got to be careful to mask the worst effects of the injury, not just from the media but also from all the people constantly coming and going from the hotel. Not to mention the team and the coaches.
Dan's injury really reinforces my determination to play, but more than that, to be really positive around the team. I don't want people worrying about me; I want to give the impression I'm always going to play, and keep my down times to myself. I don't let on to the coaches too much, there's no point in freaking them. I just keep telling them I'll be right, I'm good to go, that I'm confident that even if I don't train at all, I can still go out and perform. I don't know how much they know, how much [team doctor Deb Robinson] is telling them. They just accept that that's the way it's got to be if I'm going to be able to get on the field.
It gets no easier for Deb, sitting with me in this medical netherworld, not knowing how bad it might be. As hard as that is, it's better than the alternative. If we know for sure it's broken, then it's going to be much more difficult for both of us and everyone around us to keep me on the field. Because whatever the ramifications, I'm going to keep playing on it as long as I can stand up and do my job.
But I do confide in Bert and Ceri Evans. Both are really helpful. Ceri chats with me about how I manage the week, where and how I direct my thoughts with not being able to train, and how I can put the consequential fears and worries to one side so I can still get out there and perform the way I need to. Bert suggests I break it down into 240 minutes. Three games; 240 minutes doesn't sound that much; 240 minutes sounds manageable. Getting through those 240 minutes has got to be my focus.
The media conferences are a trial. Getting in and out without limping and giving it away, for a start. They can see I'm not taking much part in training, so I'm constantly being asked how bad it is. As long as I don't get it X-rayed, I can just about get away with telling them it's just "a niggle". I don't know any different. I'm asked if I'm having injections and can honestly say that I'm not. A needle might get me through one game, but it would probably wreck me for the next two. I've got to be optimistic. And sometimes, towards the end of the week, when the oral anti-inflams and Panadols and a lot of rest have done their work, I can almost convince myself it's just a soft-tissue injury.
"Nah, I'll be fine," I keep telling anyone who'll listen, media, team-mates, coaches, myself. "Just can't train because it'll get a bit sore, but I'm ready to go. I'm good to go." And I am. I believe it.
Two days out from the quarterfinal, I manage to do a bit of training at North Harbour Stadium, a bit of a run-around, and it feels not too bad - it's had 10 days to settle. Next day, Saturday, I manage to run around a bit during the captain's run, although I'm really careful about what I do.
On Saturday night we watch France deal to England 19-12. France are better than the score indicates. I don't care who we play, but France are so difficult to read: they've metamorphosed from the almost pathetically unmotivated wretches who lost to Tonga last week in pool play to a driven, skilful top international side. I remember what those guys said to me after our pool game, and get a feeling that they'll be the ones who'll win the semi, even though their opponents, Wales, are expansive and efficient in knocking out Ireland 22-10. But whatever, whoever.
Next day, I get through the warm-up okay and play most of a tough uncompromising quarterfinal without having to think about the foot. The Pumas score a great try from a simple move off the back of the scrum which does no credit to Kieran or me, while we bash and crash away without breaching them. We do apply enough pressure for Piri to slot four penalties and go into halftime with the lead.
It's brutally tough attrition, knockout rugby, and there are casualties. Colin Slade only lasts 30 minutes before being replaced by Aaron Cruden, who's wearing a heavy knee bandage and gets whacked across the mouth almost as soon as he gets on. Mils, who's finally got on the field for his 100th test, cracks his shoulder blade and doesn't come out for the second half. That looks like his tournament over. Jesus, what else?
The answer doesn't take long in coming. I go close to scoring our first try against the padding of the posts, but the TMO rules it out and Piri kicks his sixth penalty. But we're getting on top of them, buckling their scrum even, and we know the win will come. Almost in that moment of revelation, about 60 minutes in, I feel it, the foot. It goes again. Clunk. Just like against France.
Then it gets very sore again, almost immediately. When the ball's in play, I'm okay. But as soon as the whistle goes and I stop, it hurts. If I have to jump or run or push or tackle, I can do it - adrenaline's a great painkiller. But when play stops and I have to walk or jog to a lineout or scrum 20 metres away, I'm really struggling. I tell Deb when she comes out with the water. She says they'll get me off when they can. With 15 to go, Kieran goes over and the game's safe. I watch the rest from the bench - Brad scoring and a sideline conversion from Aaron.
When the whistle blows for fulltime and we get around Mils and Jock for his presentation, I have to make an effort not to limp. Once again, it's moving - this time to see my old mate who's been there with me through so many battles, all the ups and all the downs, get honoured with his 100th cap.
The bitter-sweet is that it looks like his tournament is over. After playing in three World Cups, perhaps his best chance to play in the winning side is gone.
There's no justice for him or Dan. This game has no memory or sentiment. We're into the semis. That's a step up from Cardiff. The solid lump of pain in my foot is back, I can feel the swelling already. But I'm still in there with a chance, so much luckier than Dan and Mils.
The same day, Australia are lucky to beat South Africa in Wellington, after Bryce Lawrence does what he did in Brisbane in the Super 15 final - freezes, and forgets to blow his whistle. Which means we play Australia in the semi. Somehow, I always knew we would. Eighty minutes down, 160 to go.
Reproduced from Richie McCaw: The Open Side by Richie McCaw with Greg McGee with permission from Hachette New Zealand Ltd, published by Hodder Moa, $49.99 RRP, available nationwide today.

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