The Real McCaw
November 26, 2012
No player deserves a break from the game more than All Blacks talisman Richie McCaw © PA Photos
Richie McCaw's annual audition for the International Rugby Board Player of the Year honour will reach a climax this weekend when he leads New Zealand into battle against England at Twickenham.
The All Blacks' talisman will return to English rugby's HQ, where he has never tasted defeat, looking to cap another epic 12 months that saw his Rugby World Cup winning-side refuse to rest on their laurels and instead simply raised the bar again. That unstinting quest for excellence brought them their latest piece of silverware - The Rugby Championship trophy - with McCaw the driving force throughout another gruelling season.
McCaw could be forgiven for winding down but that is not his way - far from it. He was central to proceedings at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday and was rewarded with the Man of the Match honour just as he was on his Test debut against Ireland in 2001 and has been countless times in the decade or so spanning those two games.
Should he follow this latest accolade up with what would be a fourth Player of the Year award then few will query his selection but the IRB suits may struggle to locate the recipient with McCaw poised to vanish off the rugby radar like former All Blacks prop Keith Murdoch. But there will be no mystery as to the reason for McCaw's disappearing act with the 31-year-old having announced his decision earlier this year to activate the sabbatical clause in his current contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union.
"I hope he packs up a bag with b****r all in it and disappears," said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen following their latest tour success. "I hope he goes somewhere no one knows anything about rugby and he gets left alone and can be Richie McCaw and not Richie McCaw - the All Blacks' captain. That is what we will be encouraging him to do and that is what he needs."
Hansen is resigned to being without his most influential player for next June's series with France with McCaw likely return to Super Rugby duties just in time to prove his fitness for the All Blacks' defence of the Rugby Championship. Fitness is something McCaw struggled with during their run to World Cup glory but Hansen insists that the preservation of the flanker's mind is just as important as that of his body.
"At some point you have got to be allowed to step out of that big bubble and have a bit of 'me time'. It's not physical, he just needs some time to enjoy life without being in that spotlight all the time. I'm not sure where he can go where nobody knows him. But we'll do a bit of research and buy him a ticket."
Hansen is aware better than most what McCaw has given to New Zealand rugby since emerging as a major talent at the turn of the new millennium but also what makes the man. McCaw is not one to court exposure - you will not find him on Twitter - and his life outside rugby has been a closed book - until now that is with the publication of his autobiography The Real McCaw.
The book offers a rare insight into the mind of the most consistent player of the professional era. From his Oamaru roots to the pain and glory of his side's quest to lift the sport's biggest prize on home soil, many of the secrets of his success are laid bare in an honest account of his life - penned with the help of Kiwi journalist Greg McGee.
But in truth there is no real secret to his success. As McCaw himself is wont to write in his ever-present Warwick B4 notebook that he uses to reinforce his 'bone-deep preparation' - 'just keep getting up'. It is a simple yet effective message to himself and serves as evidence that hard work and dedication - plus a substantial amount of talent - will carry you to great heights.
Not so attainable for the common man is the ability to lead and inspire. McCaw's qualities as a captain are unrivalled - no one has played for or captained the All Blacks more times - with his style of captaincy honed under the tutelage of some of New Zealand's greatest players and coaches. But McCaw's warrior-like bravery and willingness to lead by example appear to be family traits.
"On one evening alone in July 1944, Grandad destroyed 4 V1s heading towards London, and scraped into Biggin Hill well past midnight with his fuel tanks showing empty," McCaw writes of former fighter pilot and grandfather Jim McCaw. "A couple of days after that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross."
McCaw, a qualified pilot himself, adds: "There's a famous piece of footage shot from the gun turret of a Tempest. The pilot has possibly misjudged his approach to a V1. He's very close when he finally manages to fire his cannon and blow it up. The pilot has to fly through the explosion and all the shrapnel and debris. It's pretty terrifying. Carnage. That pilot is the old fella. He came out the other side."
Richie McCaw offers an insight into his life and times in his new autobiography © Getty Images
And all of a sudden it is clear that while the rest of the rugby world is trying to match McCaw's standards, he is striving to live up to a hero much closer to home. That respect and sense of perspective is echoed within the New Zealand set-up. The All Blacks are not immune to the kind of misconduct that blighted England's World Cup campaign last year and McCaw reveals how they strive to ensure their standards off the field match those they display on it with one simple phrase - "Just remember you're an All Black."
When that message is heeded the effects can be devastating for the rest of the world. The All Blacks may not have been at their best at the World Cup last year and McCaw may have been on one leg for most of it due to a troublesome foot injury, but their strength of character shone through.
"I bend over, hands on knees, then sink to one knee," McCaw recalls of the moment the final whistle blew on that famous night in Auckland as the All Blacks ended 24 years of World Cup hurt. "We've won. I should be happy. All I feel is relief. It's finished. I can stop. I don't have to do this anymore."
McCaw, broken physically and clearly mentally drained, finally had the one honour missing from his unrivalled CV but his career was far from complete. Just a few short weeks later he was already re-focusing with the six month sabbatical taken with a view to giving him the best possible chance of being around for the defence of the World Cup crown in England in 2015.
You would put money on it if you could find a bookmaker willing to take that chance. But the most pleasing thing for the All Blacks - and distressing for their rivals - is that McCaw is not content with sticking around, he is intent on kicking on again.
"Physically it's not so much a problem," he revealed in Cardiff at the weekend, "but I need to freshen up because I've been on the treadmill a bit and this is a chance to have a break, freshen up and get a good bit of training in so I turn up in a bit better shape than I am at the moment. And when I get back I'll carry on playing as long as I can."
The Real McCaw: The Autobiography by Richie McCaw (Aurum Press, £20) is available now
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.