Soaring to new heights
September 17, 2011
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw indulging his other passion at the controls of a glider © Getty Images
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw is undoubtedly one of the finest talents the game has ever seen. He has led his country more times than any other player, is the most capped All Blacks flanker, is a three-time International Rugby Board Player of the Year and stands on the brink of becoming New Zealand's first Test centurion - but true greatness may well lie elsewhere.
"He will be a better glider pilot than he is a rugby player," insists gliding veteran and McCaw's 'other coach' Gavin Wills. The 63-year-old soaring legend is most sincere having harnessed McCaw's passion for aviation and witnessed at first hand his 'gift' for non-powered flight.
"This is where Richie comes to hide - his spiritual home," adds Wills, whose gliding business is based on the outskirts of the 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' town of Omarama on New Zealand's South Island.
It is here, in the stunning surrounds of the Southern Alps, that the All Blacks skipper gets his off-field kicks. While England's recent thrill-seeking and headline-grabbing centred on the nearby adrenaline-fuelled Queenstown, McCaw quietly goes about his business at heights of up to 30,000ft, soaring over the mountain peaks, valleys and glaciers that make this region so special.
Flying is in McCaw's blood. His grandfather was a fighter pilot in World War II while his father, Don, and his uncles also share a passion for aviation. He grew up around gliders in the nearby Hakataramea Valley and having earned his fixed-wing pilot's license, chose to embrace the sport fully a few years ago.
Enter Wills, a long-time family friend, who obliged with the training. "We are not that interested in just teaching them to fly and leaving them to it," he explained. "We want them to get hooked so along the way Richie and I did a bunch of interesting flights together and that definitely got him hooked. It is something that once you have had a taste of it is hard to leave alone."
McCaw, an honorary squadron leader in the New Zealand Air Force, has long been a regular visitor to Omarama having holidayed here as a youngster and now has a home nearby that allows him to indulge hobby whenever he can. "When he comes back from overseas, it usually takes about 24 hours before he is here," reveals Wills who remembers greeting McCaw shortly after the All Blacks' shock exit at the last Rugby World Cup - a brief catch-up between two friends followed with the dejected visitor declaring "it's behind me now" before heading for the skies.
"He's definitely got a gift for it," adds Wills, a former mountain guide who took his first glider flight as a seven year old in 1955 and was updating his own log book just two years later. "We keep telling him he's got to look after his head on the rugby field. He can break all the bones in his body but if his head gets damaged he will not be a glider pilot because you have to use your brain."
Wills believes that many of the skills that stand McCaw out from his peers on a rugby field transfer to the air. "I suspect that many of the qualities that make him an exceptional rugby player also make him a natural glider pilot," he explains before going into detail as to how McCaw has studied the wind, the clouds and the geography to the benefit of his gliding.
The Omarama region is blessed with stunning and daunting landscape © Getty Images
"He's become an astute observer of the atmosphere. He has this special awareness in the glider that some people just don't have. Some people just don't see the stuff that is out there; they have tunnel vision and try to do exactly what you told them to without putting it in context. But Richie always pulls lifts within the context of everything that is happening around him. I noted quite early that that is what probably makes him such a great rugby player. He may be buried in the scrum but he still knows where the ball is and what is happening out there. He has this awareness and just doesn't miss much."
McCaw's flying schedule is limited by the demands of his playing career - "he gets about a month off and comes and flies his nuts off for a few weeks" explains Wills - while his clearly risky choice of leisure pursuit appears not to alarm his rugby bosses. While team-mate Sonny Bill Williams courts controversy with his boxing exploits, McCaw's arguably more dangerous pastime barely causes a stir.
"They have put no restraints on his gliding," insists Wills. "He can get off to all sorts of places and we sometimes think - 'what are we doing with Richie out here!' We look after him but we can't fly the thing for him."
McCaw escaped the pressure of World Cup preparation with a recent visit to Omarama and Wills expects to see him flying again very soon. "We're due to pick up his glider and bring it down here for maintenance so by the time the World Cup finishes his glider is ready. If he wins it we won't see him for a while but if he doesn't he'll be here the next day."
Click here to see how ESPNscrum's Graham Jenkins got on when he sampled Richie McCaw's high life.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.