Richie McCaw interview
World Cup-winning captain of the All Blacks. The greatest openside flanker the world has ever seen. The most successfully cynical player in the history of rugby union.
Richie McCaw is many different things to many different people, a relentless force of nature who divides opinion and inspires admiration in equal measure. But whatever you think of him, and indeed of the team he leads, one thing is incontrovertible: that this Saturday, against England at Twickenham, Richie McCaw plays his final game of rugby for at least six months.
“When I renewed my contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union last year, I did so for four years,“ McCaw tells Sport in an exclusive interview ahead of Saturday’s game. “I wouldn’t have signed if I didn’t think I could see out those four years – but I did ask whether, if at some point I needed a break, they would be willing to allow me to take one.
“I could probably carry on and am really enjoying my rugby at the moment, but I’ve been on the grind for 10 years now, and you don’t want it [the effects of that] to suddenly hit you in the face, and for it to be too late to come back from. I saw it as an opportunity to take a mental break as much as a physical one. In New Zealand you do live in a bit of a fishbowl at times, but I’m hoping I’ll come back realising how much I’ve missed playing and how much I love the game. Hopefully I can make the most of it and return just as good, if not better.“
Ominous words from a man who is still only 31 (he turns 32 on New Year’s Eve), but who is set to win his 116th international cap at Twickenham this weekend. That sees him move sixth on the all-time Test list (treat yourself to a protein shake if you can name the top five*), but McCaw has no intention of resting on his glittering laurels – a fact borne out by his team’s continuing dominance of world rugby.
“After winning the World Cup last year, it would have been easy just to roll on into this year and hope for the best,“ he says. “But we sat down at the start of the year and saw that we had a choice: to push on and lift our level of performance, or just sort of meander along. We’re proud of the way everyone’s bought into that and done a pretty good job to this point. It’s been a lot of fun.“
It’s indicative of the captain’s demands – both upon himself and his teammates – that he refers to the All Blacks’ current unbeaten run of 20 Tests as ’a pretty good job’. It would be a record-breaking sequence of victories, but for an 18-18 draw against Australia in Brisbane last month. “It felt like a loss, to be honest,“ adds McCaw in passing. “We just didn’t quite perform, and the Aussies were pretty desperate. That’s what happens, though... we can’t do much about it now.“
The desire to keep moving forward underpins McCaw’s philosophy as a player and a captain, and is something that comes through as much in his newly released autobiography as it does when you speak to the man himself. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned from the past – not least from a World Cup quarter-final defeat to France that sent shockwaves throughout the world in 2007. McCaw refers to that devastating reversal – the worst performance at a World Cup by any All Blacks team, and under his captaincy – simply as ’Cardiff’.
“Oh, that was certainly a big moment,“ says McCaw when we put it to him that it represents the single most pivotal moment in his career. “I’d been captain for a season; things had ticked along pretty nicely, so I thought we’d just roll into 2007 with me knowing what was going on – but that defeat put me right back in my place. I look back to that point and know that some of the lessons I learned... well, you couldn’t have got them any other way. It was a whole lot of pain to go through, but having gone four years on and managing to win the World Cup, I think the fact that we went through it certainly helped us appreciate what we did in Auckland. Five years ago, had I been talking to you about Cardiff, it wouldn’t have been that nice. Now, we can look back and it’s not too bad.“
Words that may come as some consolation to McCaw’s opposite number at Twickenham tomorrow. Chris Robshaw has faced intense criticism for some of his decisions as the England captain this autumn, but the All Blacks skipper knows how hard it can be to always get it right in the heat of battle.
“When you’re out there you’ve got to go with what you’re seeing and what you’re feeling,“ says McCaw. “Often I look back and see things I’d do differently, but my philosophy is that it’s fine to make the odd mistake. That happens in life, but it’s about being able to learn from them, to know if you find yourself in that situation again you’ll make the right decision.
“The other point is that you have a bunch of guys around you who have their own opinions. It’s about being able to use them to come to the right answer. Sometimes a captain just has to make a call, though, and I believe that if you have 15 men committed to carrying out whatever you decide, then they can turn that into the right decision anyway. If you stand around looking uncertain and indecisive, then people are going to wonder what you’re thinking.“
Not something McCaw has to worry about as he approaches his 79th Test as the All Black captain, but age and experience haven’t dimmed the great openside’s desire for success. “I’ve been lucky over the years I’ve played to have been in a pretty good All Black team,“ he reflects with trademark understatement. “There are a lot of guys who have done some very good things, but what I’ve really loved is the desire of these guys to always be the best they can be. I just go out and try to do my bit, and I feel a huge sense of satisfaction when I think I’ve done that. “I know the guys are excited about the physical challenge that’s coming from England this weekend. And personally, no, I’ve never lost at Twickenham. I’d quite like to keep it that way.“
Tony Hodson @tonyhodson1
The Real McCaw: The Autobiography by Richie McCaw (Aurum Press, £20)
*George Gregan (Aus) 139, Ronan O'Gara (Ire) 128, Brian O'Driscoll (Ire) 126, Jason Leonard (Eng) 119, Fabien Pelous (Fra) 118