McCaw the unsung hero?
December 28, 2009
It's been another good year for All Blacks captain Richie McCaw © Getty Images
You would imagine that in every rugby playing country around the globe the captain of a World Cup- winning side would be revered long after the event itself. Especially in New Zealand, that clean, green homeland of the planet's most passionate rugby culture. Please note that this last sentence contains two myths, one of a general nature, the other of a specifically rugby nature. Just think of the standing in the game of Pienaar, Eales and Johnson, each a World Cup -winning captain.
David Kirk, skipper of the triumphant 1987 Rugby World Cup side did indeed make it on to a national network review of 2009 over the Christmas weekend, but it was rather a sour little piece from February bemoaning the fact that he had just taken Australian nationality. A successful businessman domiciled on the other side of the Tasman, it made good practical sense for him to have taken this course of action and he struggled to convince the interviewer that his decision would make no difference to his allegiance come Bledisloe Cup time.
The other myth that needs exposing is that New Zealand has rugby heroes to place alongside its other sporting icons. Because it doesn't. Colin Meads, who finished his playing career in 1971, is the only All Black who can be mentioned alongside other enduring heroes of New Zealand sport : Olympic greats like Peter Snell or John Walker, motor racing legend Bruce McLaren, yachting giants Peter Blake or Russell Coutts, to name just a few.
The biggest star of the professional rugby era has been Jonah Lomu, loved and adored throughout Europe but strangely ignored in his own country. In Wellington for the Bledisloe Cup clash of 2000, a time when Lomu was at the peak of his powers, I was busy interviewing All Blacks in their hotel foyer. Lomu, not needed for this particular session, stepped out of a lift in the background and proceeded towards the hotel exit. Nobody paid him any attention, there was a complete absence of the photographers and autograph hunters who would have confirmed the presence of celebrity. Some years later, in Wellington for a friendly football match for the Los Angeles Galaxy, David Beckham was besieged as he looked around the city.
Richie McCaw, current All Black skipper and International Rugby Board Player of the Year in 2006 and again in 2009, follows in that tradition and this is an observation that is likely to be surprising to rugby followers outside New Zealand. This is not to say that he is not valued in New Zealand, that his part in any prospective 2011 Rugby World Cup success is not recognised as being other than central, but rugby dynasties in New Zealand are built on pragmatics, not poetry. In other times and places mention of JPR, Blanco or Campese stirs the blood, brings to mind particular deeds during series turning moments, a tackle here, a sleight of hand there. McCaw's genius, and it does mark him out as one of the game's all-time greats, is his efficiency and technique at the breakdown. With all due respect, the punters do not pass through the turnstiles in eager anticipation of what they are about to receive at the breakdown. It has become one of the modern game's curses. It is very difficult to wax lyrical about turnover ball.
All this could change come 2011, were McCaw to become the first All Black skipper in the professional era to hold the Webb Ellis Cup aloft. But I seriously doubt it, because rugby in New Zealand is not built like that. The sporting public is becoming increasingly excited about New Zealand participation in the South African FIFA World Cup in 2010. The last time a New Zealand side achieved this feat, indeed the only New Zealand side to have done so, was way back in 1982, in Spain. Wynton Rufer, the striker who went on to make a successful career in German soccer, is much more revered in New Zealand than David Kirk. Is Richie McCaw about to reverse the trend?