Legendary All Blacks captain Richie McCaw has hung up his boots, drawing to a close the most illustrious career in the modern era
Imagine you’re taking your seat about to take flight. You’re a little nervous of flying. What would soothe your nerves faster than a stiff drink. Probably the words, ‘this is your captain speaking. My name is Richie McCaw.”
Yes, the great man is finally hanging up the boots after 148 Tests for the best team in the world in arguably the most attritional position of all, the fabled All Black No 7 shirt. His next aim, to qualify to become a commercial helicopter pilot. With a grandfather who flew fighter planes in World War II, few would bet against him being a dab hand at that, too.
When we regaled at the likes of Michael Jones and the wonderful Josh Kronfeld wearing the shirt with such aplomb, few would have thought the young loosie from the nondescript farming village of Kurow, near Otago would better that duo, but he did, with interest.
Before you search into his character, just reading the statistics over a 14-year All Black career will tell you all you need to know about the winning mentality of a man who Steve Hansen has dubbed ‘the greatest All Black ever’. He won 131 of his 148 Tests, captaining them to 97 wins in 110 Tests, won two World Cups and picked up three World Player of the Year awards, not to mention seven Rugby Championships. He is peerless, and you seriously wonder if any other player will be able to match such elevated standards.
A childhood friend, Andrew Gard, described how McCaw’s talent was apparent in his formative years. “Richie got noticed early because he was going where the ball was going to be, instead of where it was. If you ever go and watch kids play rugby, they are chasing the ball like bees around a honey pot. But Richie was always two phases ahead, predicting the next state of play.”
That nose for the chasing the pill stayed with him and like any good openside, McCaw was barracked for walking the law’s tightrope at the breakdown, usually by opposition fans.
In the final months of his career, he played as well as any, peeling off a rolling maul against Argentina and thundering over for the crucial winning try off a lineout against South Africa in the Rugby Championship, but he also courted inevitable scrutiny.
In the World Cup, the reaction of the crowd at Wembley when he was yellow carded for a ‘dumb foot trip’ on Argentina’s Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, told you everything you needed to know about the respect and fear he had instilled in opponents. He was booed remorselessly while sitting on the naughty chair. As Steve Hansen muttered at the after-match presser, “it was a mark of respect for a player rival teams struggle to cope with”.
Then there was the ‘McCaw elbow’ on Francois Louw that sent social media into overdrive after the pulsating World Cup semi-final. Yet again McCaw was under the microscope, even though he was absolved of any blame.
After hanging on with a bust up foot, in 2011, in 2015, he was influential as ever in the World Cup final, hitting the rucks, carrying hard and popping up as a link man. He also refused to panic when the Wallabies battled back to 21-17, trusting in his team to do the basics and his feted lieutenant, Dan Carter to add the dash of magic.
As much as his playing skills were lauded, his leadership was also of the highest order. After the final, with the blemishes on his face still red raw, soaked in sweat, he summed up his team-first ethos. “No person is bigger than the team. Your job is just to enhance the legacy. It’s not about being a hero. It’s about serving the team.”
You can only imagine the collective gulp from Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, the two seven’s expected to fight for his shirt in the next decade, at trying to follow that act.
His retirement was typically understated. He spoke movingly about ‘his hero’ Jonah Lomu, holding a minute’s silence. It has never been his style to detract detention away from the All Blacks or individuals. “I made no secret this year was probably going to be my last but deep downI didn’t want to shut the door totally. I was worried the emotion might get to me in a World Cup year, by leaving that door open, it didn’t feel final until now.”
On the final whistle, many pondered whether Richie would call it a day in the immediate aftermath, but no, he waited 19 days to go out on his own terms, and with the minimum of fuss.
“It has been hell of a journey over the last 15 years. I’ve been privileged to do what I love for so long. Here’s to new adventures.”
Buckle up, Richie, stay safe and thanks for the memories.