McCaw refuses to rest on laurels
September 27, 2012
All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw has his sights set on another Rugby World Cup success © Getty Images
Richie McCaw Factfile
What do you do when you have reached the summit of your sport? Where do you turn when you have tasted the ultimate glory and your place among the all-time greats is assured?
When your name is Sir Edmund Hillary and that particular peak happens to be Mount Everest - whose summit had to that point not been graced by mankind - then your ascent to greatness is accompanied by a realisation that you can go no higher.
But it would prove no deterrent to the pioneering explorer who would go back to the well time and time again and whose later conquests would include the South Pole. That defiance and unrelenting quest for excellence is mirrored in another battle-hardened and success-laden Kiwi - All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw.
Every moment McCaw spent on a rugby field in the four years that followed his side's crushing Rugby World Cup exit at the hands of France in 2007 was attacked with one aim - to right that wrong at the next tournament.
His quest reached a memorable conclusion on home soil last year when the All Blacks ended a 24-year drought in rugby's showpiece event. The three-time IRB Player of the Year with numerous Tri-Nations and Super Rugby titles to his name finally also had the sport's biggest prize in his hands. An unrivalled rugby CV appeared complete but it did little to satisfy his seemingly insatiable appetite for the game with his focus soon drawn to the defence of their title.
His life post-World Cup glory was already decided thanks to a new four-year deal struck with the New Zealand Rugby Union on the eve of their most recent assault on the tournament. "There are still things I want to achieve as a player," he said at the time with the William Webb Ellis Cup a clear priority but his decision to commit to another gruelling four-year cycle beyond that hinted that not even that coveted prize would be enough to blunt his competitive edge.
But his route to the next World Cup will not be as gruelling as those that he trod from the agony of the 2003 World Cup to their meltdown in Cardiff four years later after McCaw invoked the sabbatical clause in his latest contract.
His decision is not financially motivated with the talismanic flanker opting for the chance to re-charge his body rather than bolster his bank account with a sojourn overseas as the likes of Dan Carter, Jerome Kaino and Ma'a Nonu have opted to do when rewarded with such freedom of movement.
Some have suggested that by stepping back from the elite game altogether McCaw is gambling with his future but those doomsayers are clearly unaware that they are questioning the ability of the sport's best player and arguably the greatest of all-time whose warrior-like qualities are unrivalled.
A McCaw-lite Super Rugby season may offer the chance for rivals to lay claim to the No.7 shirt that has been his for the best part of a decade but the three-Test series against France next summer, that he is also set to miss, is a limited window in which to leverage that advantage before McCaw returns to the mix for what is set to be their defence of the Rugby Championship title.
As if to issue a reminder of his value to New Zealand, McCaw produced one of his greatest performances in an All Blacks jersey in his last outing before announcing his decision to take a break. Free of the injury woes that plagued his World Cup journey, McCaw was simply outstanding against South Africa in Dunedin.
A lung-busting effort to chase a late Aaron Cruden penalty and claim the ball as it cannoned off a post underlined the determination and work ethic that continue to drive him and his side to heights most sides can only dream of.
But that was not the only reminder of the qualities that make him not only an outstanding player but also a man. Smashed to the ground by a swinging forearm to the face from South Africa's Dean Greyling, who was not the first and will not be the last to take offence to his opponent's dealings at a ruck, McCaw shrugged off the cheapest of cheap shots before returning to fray with no hint of revenge on his mind.
"I was just glad to get the penalty," was his take on the latest illegal attempt to thwart his dominance at the breakdown. His ability to roll with the punches, quite literally, make him even more endearing. Rarely will McCaw's blood boil with the French appearing to be the only side that get under his skin - quite literally if reports regarding attempted eye-gouging during last year's World Cup finale are anything to go by. "The French are worse when they are scared," commented an uncharacteristically venomous McCaw in the wake of that hard-fought triumph. "They were as bad as they have been and were going for the eyes."
No one has captained the All Blacks on more occasions or led them to as many victories and a clean sweep in the Rugby Championship will see him become the first player to reach the 100 Test victories landmark. It is not really surprising he has only tasted defeat on 12 occasions and while his winning percentage may not quite rival that of centre Conrad Smith (90%) his team-mate has about half the mileage on his Test rugby clock.
It makes him the most marketable player of his generation but you will not see him in his pants on a billboard. Aside from those appearances on behalf of those companies that have paid handsomely to be tied to the All Blacks brand including the likes of adidas and Air New Zealand, you will be hard-pressed to find his face on anything but for the occasional bottle of flavoured milk. An amazing fact considering he is probably afforded more air time and exposure than even New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
Such is his standing, you would fancy McCaw's chances of giving Key a run for his money should he venture into politics but as we have seen, he is not one to seek such exposure. You will rarely see him out on the town and you certainly will not find him on Twitter cultivating his reputation and he of course turned down the offer of a kinghthood in the wake of his side's World Cup triumph. "Now wasn't the right time," he insisted in a clear indication that he has some unfinished business - and the target on his back is big enough as it is.
Will Richie McCaw get his hands on the Webb Ellis Cup again in 2015? © Getty Images
He is more likely to take to the skies in his glider on a rare day off - that's if he is not putting those same skills to use while doing his day job as he did when ensuring the Crusaders kept a Super Rugby date in Wellington by flying the team there in a DC3 he 'borrowed' after an ash cloud had grounded aircraft across the country.
'Captain Fantastic' headlines littered cyberspace - not for the first time - but on contrast to his high-flying exploits, you will not find another player of his stature so grounded and gracious. "What you see is what you get," he said when pressed on his 'celebrity' status earlier this year. "I don't have to pretend to do or be anything."
The evidence continues to stack up - McCaw is much more than a great rugby player, he is a superb role model whose influence stretches far beyond the rugby realm. As New Zealand radio personality Martin Devlin recently wrote, "My two lads think he's Santa/Rooney/Usain/Pocket-Money/School Holidays and the world's biggest bag of lollies all rolled into one." Perhaps aware of the power and influence he wields, McCaw continues to set a shining example in everything he does - determined but respectful, well-mannered and well-spoken but a peerless warrior.
Column inches may have lamented the void in the game left following the loss of the media magnet that is Sonny Bill Williams to Japan and then rugby league, but let us not forget that New Zealand rugby and the game still retains the services of a true champion in McCaw.
But you will not find the self-deprecating former Hakataramea farm boy talking up his value - that rather seemingly easy task falls to Warren Alcock, his representative at management firm Essentially. Instead, McCaw is too busy making good on the investment made in him by countless coaches and the New Zealand Rugby Union. With mind and body refreshed, expect McCaw to spearhead another assault on the World Cup crown in a manner that once again echoes that of the man whose name will adorn the silverware that will be up for grabs when England play host to New Zealand a little later this year.
"Why make a fuss over something that's done anyway?" declared Hillary when asked to reflect on his achievements. "I was never one to obsess about the past. Too much to do in the future!"
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.