New Zealand coach Steve Hansen believes that captain marvel Richie McCaw is “probably our greatest rugby player ever”.
McCaw will become the first rugby union player to captain his country in 100 Tests when New Zealand face Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
He has led the reigning world champions to 87 victories, and Hansen has no doubt how brightly 33-year-old McCaw features among the all-time galaxy of rugby stars.
“We are all very proud,” said Hansen, speaking at the All Blacks’ central Cardiff base “He is a straight up and down bloke, who’s probably our greatest rugby player ever.
“It’s nice to be here to share that moment with him. But he will be the first to tell you this game is not about him, but about the team playing well enough to walk off the park and be very proud of our performance in getting the win.
“I saw him play in a school game in a tournament in Christchurch. He was about 17.
“Richie’s not a natural athlete. When he first arrived he had four feet and couldn’t catch a cold. But what he did have was a massive capacity to learn and want to learn and want to be better.
“He was very, very good over the ball. You could run him over with a tractor and he would still get up and have another go, so there is courage there.
“But the thing that has made him the great player he is, outside of his mental strength which is phenomenal, is his ability to want to get better.
“And even now, with 136 Tests, he wants to get better. That is phenomenal for an athlete who has been around as long as he has.
“You see most players striving to be better in that first couple of seasons as an international, and then they flat-line and their performance doesn’t get better and sometimes even dips away.
“He has evolved his game over time, and that is why he’s probably, if not the greatest player, then one of them.”
Hansen has made 12 changes to the side that secured a 24-16 win against Scotland last Saturday, with Ben Smith, Charles Piutau and McCaw the only players to retain their places in the starting XV.
Dan Carter, who made his first Test start of the year at Murrayfield following injury, is not included in the match-day squad, nor is Aaron Cruden, who was given the nod at 10 against England seven days earlier. Beauden Barrett will start at fly-half.
McCaw said: “I always just remind myself it’s a privilege every time you get to play for, and captain, the All Blacks.
“I enjoy doing it, and to do it for as long as I have I guess I have had a huge sense of enjoyment and learnt a lot doing it.
“To get to a hundred (caps as captain) is something that I am obviously quite proud of, but you can’t do it without a good bunch of people around you. That is something I always bear in mind.”
New Zealand are unbeaten against Wales for 61 years, winning 25 successive Tests, but former Wales coach Hansen has ruled out any hint of complacency.
“Every time we go out to play we know we have to be at our best because teams we are playing are getting up to play us, regardless of who they are and what their previous form is,” Hansen added.
“So we know and expect Wales to come out and chuck everything at us. But, in knowing that, we have got an inner belief in our own abilities and know we are a good side.
“We know, if we prepare really well and genuinely and honestly, we have got a good chance of getting the job done. And, if we don’t, then c’est la vie - that’s sport.”