Richie McCaw: The All Blacks’ big white shark

If Richard Hugh McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Cup up to the London skies tonight in his final act as an All Black, it would do more than reinforce his claim to being rugby’s ultimate gladiator, the best player the game has seen.

More than that, it would also underline his status as one of the great sportsmen in history, with his name leaving a truly indelible imprint in his sport.

Where 21st century football has Messi and modern cricket had Tendulkar, rugby in McCaw boasts a similar champion for the ages.

To become the man who piloted perhaps the finest rugby team in history to the unique achievement of back-to-back World Cup triumphs would seem an entirely fitting finale to an international career that, over 14 years, has rewritten the rules on astonishing courage, skill and leadership.

Not that he will confirm quite yet that today’s final with Australia will be his swansong.

With typical selflessness and professionalism, he will not talk about life after the final whistle because “that lulls you into thoughts that are unhelpful” but everything points to this being the last game of a matchless career.

A quick resume. Here’s a man who won a World Cup on a broken foot, who fought back from major concussion injuries that might have ended his career.

Eight times he has been nominated as world player of the year, twice as often as anyone else. He has played more tests (147) and won more (130) as a player and captain than anyone. Oh, and Dan Carter calls him “and incredible superman” who never has a bad game.

And the most wonderful thing? He is finishing as he started, by niggling and irritating the hell out of his opponents. As Australia, who have only managed to win six of 36 games against the All Blacks when McCaw has been playing, fret about his towering influence in today’s first-ever trans-Tasman final, it is perhaps the set compliment to him that their media have sought to mark his last match by portraying him as not the ultimate competitor, but the ultimate cheat.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph mocked up a picture of him on their back page as a witchetty grub — “the Richetty grub… that has been bugging Australia for years with his grubby interpretation of rugby’s rules.

Richie McCaw: The All Blacks’ big white shark

“Whether it’s coming in illegally from the side, rolling away from the maul the wrong way to disrupt the half-back’s passing, or holding on to the tackled player too long, the Richetty grub is the master of the dark arts of breakdown cheating.”

This knockabout stuff may have been as harmless as it was charmless, a extension of the favourite chant of every Australian crowd for a decade — “Hands off black seven!” — but it is an illustration of how McCaw has always been able to burrow his way into the psyche of opponents by making an art form of playing on and beyond the very edge of the game’s laws.

He’s no paragon, as the cynical trip against Argentina reminded us, but, in truth, McCaw hasn’t pushed the envelope further than any self-respecting, thieving openside down the years; he’s just done it better than anyone else with a speed, strength and reading of the referee second to none.

And has his aura blinded some officials? You bet.

Yet for any opposition, he has always been a pest. It even began with his own teammates. Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach who first watched the teenage tyro flanker breezing in at Canterbury, remembers him immediately irritating senior players at training sessions.

“If he comes into another ruck and pinches another ball, we are going to snot him,” a delegation of senior players complained to Hansen.

“So I had to go to him quietly and say ‘let them win a couple, you are starting to p*** them off’,” the coach smiled.

He’s been doing it ever since. Reflecting on a frankly miraculous career, Hansen told me a couple of years back when pondering whether McCaw was the greatest: “We’ve had some great athletes play the game but he’d be the most consistent, probably the guy that has the greatest performances week in week out.”

Some can go back even further than Hansen in recalling this trait of daily excellence.

Near his little home town of Kurow, where the rugby posts in the old McCaw farm homestead must increasingly feel like national treasures, Barney McCone, McCaw’s first coach, told me before the 2011 final: “I’ve never seen Richard play a bad game yet.

From when he was a kid here right through to his 102nd Test last week. And it’s not going to change now.”

It didn’t. McCaw had a blinder in that narrowest of wins over France in the last cup final even though he had not trained all week to spare his broken foot. It seemed impossible that, in the dying minutes, he could produce the diving tap tackle on Alexis Palisson and then snaffle the 76th minute turnover which carried the All Blacks home.

“Impossible, unbelievable”, thought Hansen, that a man so badly injured could still surf the pitch like a “big white shark”.

Everyone around McCaw was celebrating but his only thought was blessed relief. “It’s finished. I can stop. I don’t have to do this anymore,” he reflected in his autobiography.

Except he does. One more time for the road and when the 400 good folk of Kurow rise, along with the rest of a breathless nation, in the early hours to watch their heroes, the presence of McCaw will remain their comfort blanket.

As his old mentor McCone explained: “It’s important to us that as famous an All Black as he has become, he’s still the same Richard McCaw as he always was.”

Hansen concurs. “He’s grown into the best player and one of the greatest leaders but what’s never changed are his values, his morals, his discipline. He’s just a humble man and a good bloke.”

In McCaw, New Zealand still trusts. For just 80 minutes more…

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