McCaw rolls with the punches..and knees...and gouging...and elbows
October 26, 2012
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw - on this occasion boasting a black eye courtesy of a team-mate - has long been a target for his rivals © Getty Images
Richie McCaw will embark on a six-month sabbatical next year and no-one will begrudge him the chance to rest arguably the most-targeted body in world rugby.
The All Blacks skipper has long-been the subject of rogue boots and riled rivals - such is his willingness to walk a fine line at the breakdown - and sometimes cross it. The brutal physical combat comes with the territory when you play openside and you will rarely hear McCaw complain or see him point the finger or seek retribution (unless your name is Pieter van Zyl).
Such an astonishing level of self control over more than a decade on the international stage - that has seen him sin-binned just once in 113 appearances - only adds to his aura especially when you count up the amount of "cheap shots" the flanker has suffered over the years. Love his warrior-like qualities or loathe the invisibility cloak you feel he wears at the breakdown, you can't fault his commitment to the All Blacks' cause in the face of this kind of barrage.
The All Blacks' rivalry with the Springboks is arguably the most fierce in world rugby with the physicality of their encounters often as awe-inspiring as the action. It is not uncommon to see things boil over as they did when South Africa prop Dean Greyling took offence to McCaw's work at the breakdown during their Rugby Championship clash in Dunedin last month. McCaw is normally quick to dust himself down following a breakdown battle and return to the coal face but on this occasion he opted to take a moment or two having been smashed to the ground by a swinging forearm.
Greyling made no attempt to disguise his intentions and would be sin-binned before later serving a two-week suspension. McCaw eventually regained his senses to steer his side to victory after which he was asked about the assault. "I was just glad to get the penalty," he said.
The usually reticent McCaw was a little more vociferous in his condemnation in the wake of the All Blacks' Rugby World Cup final triumph over France last year. The French fought tooth and nail that night at Eden Park - quite literally - with TV replays quite clearly showing centre Aurelien Rougerie clawing at McCaw's face at the bottom of a ruck. Rougerie avoided punishment for his crime with the evidence emerging outside the 35-hour window for citings. As a result, the sport's showpiece event was not marred by an offence that could have landed the Frenchman a 12-week ban at the least had he been found guilty and proed to be an indelible stain on the game. That fact did not sit well with McCaw who would later comment: "They were as bad as they have been and were going for the eyes."
England's Kiwi-born hooker Dylan Hartley is another to have attempted to leave a lasting impression on McCaw. A keenly-contested match at Twickenham in 2010 saw Hartley invite trouble by smashing his forearm into his rival's face at a ruck. Amazingly Hartley escaped punishment but his All Blacks counterpart Keven Mealamu was handed a four-week ban for a similar assault on England's Lewis Moody in the same match. And it was that perceived lack of consistency and not Hartley's ill-advised offering that drew McCaw's wrath post-game.
"I don't like to be bitching and moaning about it, that's not the way I am, but all players would like to see a level of consistency," he told reporters. "With that incident I'm surprised he wasn't up. I don't know whether the ref saw it or not but I certainly made it known to him that I'd been hit. I don't like people to take cheap shots - that annoys me."
Grizzled lock Brad Thorn was quick to leap to McCaw's defence on that day at Twickenham and he was on hand again when Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper opted to stir things up during their 2011 Tri-Nations decider in Brisbane. It was the latest confrontation in a simmering rivalry dating back a head-shove from Cooper following the Wallabies' match-winning score in Hong Kong the year before.
On this occasion, cameras caught Cooper kneeing McCaw in the head as they picked themselves off the floor following a ruck. "I don't know whether it was intentional or accidental. I guess someone else will decide that," McCaw said following the game but he went into more detail in his recent autobiography where he revealed a rare lapse in his mental focus. ''The intent of what he was trying to do pissed me off more than the execution," he wrote. "Shortly after that happened, I was carrying and should have passed, but I lit up and I saw Quade standing in front of me and clattered into him instead. 'I was disappointed in myself doing that, letting it get personal. There's no need - players like Quade get sorted. Sooner or later they get their beans.''
The knee was also the weapon of choice when Ireland's Jamie Heaslip attempted to thwart McCaw during their clash in New Plymouth in 2010. Heaslip's moment of madness earned him a red card and not only cost his side a great chance of beating the All Blacks for the first time but also resulted in a five-week ban. The blow clearly had an impact on McCaw's memory as he couldn't recall the incident earlier this year and at the time commented: "Those things sometimes happen on the field so you just move on. I don't get carried away and I definitely don't carry grudges. I can put that stuff away and get on with the game."
Not everyone waits until McCaw is buried at the bottom of a ruck to dish out some treatment - just ask Wales' Andy Powell. The power-packed forward floored McCaw with a clothesline tackle during their clash at the Millennium Stadium in 2010. Powell somehow escaped punishment for the woeful tackle by the referee and his effort also failed to spur the citing officer into action. Unsurprisingly, McCaw returned to the fray to ensure his side completed their latest unbeaten Grand Slam tour.
The latest not-so-subtle attack on McCaw came last weekend with Wallabies flanker Scott Higginbotham guilty of not one but two cheap shots. The first, a cheeky knee to the head, lit the fuse with a second, this time a head-butt, delivered in the ensuing havoc. It may have floored the All Blacks' captain but did not hinder his capacity to lead with a bold injury-time call to run a penalty from deep almost a masterstroke.
Predictably, McCaw wasn't too scathing in his assessment of the incident describing it as "annoying" but his coach Steve Hansen was not so backward in coming forward. "You people see it week-in, week-out. If you don't think it's right, then write it, or say it on TV. We saw it, it was a cheap shot and we hope the judicial people can sort it out," he said. We listened and so did the judiciary on this occasion with Higginbotham handed a two-week ban.
Despite opting to trigger the sabbatical clause in his current New Zealand Rugby Union contract and having added the World Cup and the Rugby Championship to his CV in the last 12 months, McCaw's hunger for the game clearly remains with a tour of Europe next on his agenda. And while he continues to excel he can expect the All Blacks' No.7 shirt to continue to serve as a target for his opponents both and off the field.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.