“The one thing you want more than anything in sport is to earn the respect of the guys you play with. When you go out on the field, you want to know that they trust you, that they believe you will give everything for that team. No matter who you are, no one is bigger than the team. That’s the greatest thing about the All Blacks. Those are the values you put into it, and that is what people remember you for. As an All Black, that is the legacy you want to leave.” Richie McCaw
Richie McCaw is 34 years old. He has earned 142 caps for New Zealand – more than anyone else for any country. He has appeared on the winning side on no fewer than 125 occasions – again, an international record. He has captained the All Blacks 105 times – the only man in history to have led an international team in more than a century of Test matches. He is the man who, four years ago in Auckland, fulfilled the hopes and dreams of a long-suffering nation when lifting the Webb Ellis Cup pretty much on one leg. He is widely regarded as the greatest rugby player ever to set foot on a pitch. He may also be the most humble.
“I want to be remembered as a guy who played well every week, but also as a good bugger and a good team man,” he tells Sport in an exclusive interview on the eve of the Rugby World Cup. “That every game, right to the end, I played my best and never, ever let my standards drop. That’s the bit I want others to take – that no one is there to just make up the numbers.”
No one is there to make up the numbers.
For McCaw, and for every All Black, this is a guiding principle. The individual’s contribution to the whole is not just expected, but also celebrated.
“In other countries, weaknesses in individuals are regularly admitted, even highlighted,” says Jonny Wilkinson, another of the all-time greats. “But take an All Black prop who is on the weak side in the gym. If he does a good job on the field, all the All Blacks ever mention is the job he does for the team. There is never any talk of this guy being inadequate.
“Journalists critique the players’ performance as honestly in New Zealand as ours do here. But the All Black set-up are aware of what their players represent, and they actively work to perpetuate that.”
Every player who pulls on the exalted All Blacks jersey, historically adorned with nothing but the silver fern, is immediately lifted to a status afforded few other athletes.
“Kids grow up dreaming of becoming an All Black,” says McCaw. “We used to watch them on TV, and then run outside and pretend to be them. The way people talked about them, they were revered. You wanted to be like them. I went to a little school in a small town, but all we did at lunchtimes was play rugby. That’s where the dream came alive, I guess, and it is always there. It never leaves you.”
The dream never leaves you.
Sean Fitzpatrick, a World Cup winner in 1987, is the only other man to have led the All Blacks on more than 50 occasions. He remembers, vividly, the awe with which he beheld them as a child.
“When you become an All Black, there is a saying that every man and boy would change places with you tomorrow,” he says. “I was one of those boys. Growing up in New Zealand in the 1970s, you couldn’t even buy the jersey. To see an All Black in the flesh, even to touch one, was something very special.
“One of my most vivid memories as a child was when my local rugby club had its centenary. A number of All Blacks came, and I remember standing at the door of the bus when these great men emerged. One of them, a guy called Grant Batty, walked off the bus – to touch him, literally, was like a dream come true. The great thing for me is to see that these dreams still exist in kids growing up in New Zealand.”
So few of the children who grow up desperate to become an All Black ever realise the dream. For those who do, however, the message is consistent.
“I wasn’t even playing for Auckland when I first got called to play in the All Black trials,” recalls Fitzpatrick of his own accession. “The day after the trials, I was told that I had made the All Blacks as a reserve for the next game, against France. But the Thursday before the game, the hooker at the time, Bruce Hemara, got injured. On the Friday morning, [head coach] Brian Lochore walked into my bedroom and said: ‘Fitzy, you’re starting tomorrow. You’re good enough to do this.’
“Then, the next morning, a memory that will live with me forever. Lochore was presenting the jerseys. I walked into his room, shut the door behind me and saw all the jerseys laid out beautifully behind him. He said: ‘Sean, the first time you put on this jersey, make a mental note of the feeling. And then, every other time you put it on after that, remember that feeling.’
“I went to walk out of the door, tears of joy running down my face almost, clutching the jersey. As I opened it, Brian called me back: ‘Oh, and one more thing Sean – you are expected to win.”
You are expected to win.
“There are four million shareholders in New Zealand, and they still expect the All Blacks to win every time they set foot on the field,” continues Fitzpatrick. “It is a great pressure to have. A privilege, in fact.”
The collective privilege of being expected to win is something shared by every All Black. It is built into their psyche, born of a heritage dating back to the first New Zealand rugby team ever to leave the southern hemisphere. The 1905/06 tour of Europe and North America by an All Blacks team that has come to be known simply as ‘The Originals’ yielded 34 wins from 35 games. The resulting aura of invincibility has never truly left them – not least because of the fearsome war dance with which they greet every opposition that dares to confront them.
“I think the haka has become more important not just for the All Blacks, but for New Zealand,” says Fitzpatrick. “Look back to where it came from. It is our indigenous people, where the country started. It’s about laying down a challenge to the opposition. Life is life, death is death, and if you want to take up the challenge then we are going to take your breath away so you can’t fight us. That is your challenge, but it is also a celebration of New Zealand, and for that I love it desperately. I love watching the All Blacks do it.”
You can’t fight us.
“The haka is something that identifies the All Blacks, it is a point of difference,” says Owain Jones, editor of Rugby World. “Look back to the 1970s and it did at times resemble some kind of Morris dance, but they have now turned it into something truly iconic.
“That has helped their aura, but so has their longstanding breeding of teak-tough men. Take Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, in 1986, the Battle of Nantes. He had his scrotum stamped on and torn open; he walked off the pitch calmly, had it stitched up on the side of the pitch, came back on and proceeded to have three teeth knocked out in a further fracas – and all in a game where the French have been accused of doping their players.
“Go back even further and you find Dick Conway, so desperate to play for the All Blacks that he had the middle finger on his right hand amputated. It kept breaking and they couldn’t realign it properly, but such was his desire to wear the silver fern that he had it amputated in an effort to make a tour of South Africa.
“These anecdotes are legendary, but they are not myths. They are real. This is the physical strength, the mental strength that has undoubtedly helped build the All Blacks into what they are today.”
The greatest All Blacks also possess a will to overcome adversity. Tales exist of a legendary meeting that took place in the aftermath of a thumping by South Africa in 2004 – so dismayed were a number of all the All Blacks’ most revered names, goes the myth, that they came together for a brutal, relentless threeday council held in remote isolation.
“Rumour goes that the main subject at this meeting was: what do we want the All Blacks to be?” says Jones. “What came out of it was an agreement that, to be a better All Black, you need to be a better person.”
McCaw confirms that the famous meeting did take place, but smiles at our version of it.
“The legend seems to be growing,” he says. “That year, 2004, was Graham Henry’s first as coach, with Steve Hansen as assistant. We ended up losing the last two Tri-Nations games in Australia and South Africa – but performances hadn’t been great, and they realised that if we carried on like that we weren’t going to achieve what we wanted to.
“It wasn’t what people make it out to be, though. The coach was there, the team manager, Sir Brian Lochore, [team captain] Tana Umaga and myself. We decided that we needed to make some changes. There was a big hole in the culture of the team: you had the coach and captain, but then it seemed everyone else was there to just play and not enhance what we were doing. We wanted more people taking ownership of the team, and in that regard it was a pretty important meeting. But it didn’t last three days…”
Within two years, McCaw himself was captain. Nine years on, he is able to reflect on his learning curve in the role.
“I was reasonably young when I became captain, and I guess you feel like you need to know all the answers, do and say all the right things,” he says. “I probably did okay considering, but when I look back now I was flying blind there for a bit.
“In time, you don’t pretend to know it all yourself. I look around the senior members of my team and there are some hugely experienced guys. They all have great knowledge and different ideas, and my job is to make sure we all work together to get the right answers. It doesn’t need to be my idea to be the right one – as a captain, you become more comfortable when you realise that. The reality is that you can’t do it on your own. If you’ve got just one guy making all the decisions, thinking he knows it all, then no team, no business, is going to go far.”
You can’t do it on your own.
McCaw’s reference to business is no throwaway line, but a nod to the era of professionalism in which he has performed. When the sport made the historic decision to turn pro in late 1995, South Africa were world champions – but the star of that year’s World Cup, and the sport’s first worldwide superstar, was an All Black. Jonah Lomu became the unstoppable force of a powerful brand built on much more than hardmen and the haka.
“Professionalism is only 20 years old, but I think we have done better than anyone could have hoped,” says Fitzpatrick. “New Zealand Rugby have mapped out where they’re going superbly in terms of the sponsors that fit our culture. Adidas have done a phenomenal job in promoting the All Blacks, and AIG have been a perfect fit – they have a wonderful culture built on trust and strong values.
“But the biggest thing is that we are still winning on the field. It’s what the sponsors want, it’s what the fans want, but to maintain that culture of success is not easy. This All Blacks team, and the leadership that has been shown in the past 10 or 15 years, has been quite phenomenal. We don’t have all the money in the world in New Zealand, but the way to sustain this culture is with great men. It is said that good men make great All Blacks. That’s what we have at the moment, and Richie is an absolutely outstanding leader.”
Good men make great All Blacks.
Should he lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time, McCaw will cement his status as the greatest All Black of all. He appreciates, though, the importance of World Cup devastations to the shaping of both him and his team.
“In 2003, I’d been an All Black for only a couple of years and didn’t understand what it took to win a World Cup,” he explains. “We didn’t win, but I thought we played alright and I knew we’d get another chance.
“But 2007 was different. I was captain and I knew how talented a team we had – but we didn’t even come close to our goal [they lost to France in the quarter finals], and that’s when I realised that to win a World Cup you can’t just rock up and think that what you’re doing is good enough.
“A lot of the same people, including the management, were given the chance to learn those lessons and rectify what we got wrong over the next four years. We’d been through that hugely disappointing experience, but it made us appreciate winning in 2011 a lot more. We knew how hard it was, but we did it.”
It is a simple tenet, but the desire to learn lessons is at the heart of the All Blacks’ philosophy. They do it better than anyone.
“They have a commitment to learning,” says Jones. “They are always thinking about how to take the team on, and will do whatever they can to be more successful. They learned from the mistakes of 1999 and 2007, and managed to win the last World Cup without Dan Carter and with McCaw stood on one leg.
“And, as we have seen in recent years, they seem able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat almost at will. Look at the Ireland game in 2013 – 19-0 down, and no one in their right mind could see them winning. But they did, and they have done so time and time again.
“We will see a different All Blacks in years to come: after this World Cup, they may lose McCaw, Carter, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock. That’s a hell of a lot of experience to be going, but they are already regenerating. Julian Savea is only 25, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa. Aaron Smith is only 26, Beauden Barrett’s a kid. We shouldn’t be shedding too many tears for them.”
McCaw has refused to confirm his widely suspected plans to retire after this World Cup, with a run to the final potentially leaving him on a tantalising 149 caps. If he does choose to carry on, we will be in no doubt as to why.
“The simple fact is that I love it,” he says. “It was my dream to be able to put on the All Black jersey, and I got to live that. The first time you hold that jersey in your hands, you can’t believe it. You think: ‘Crikey, am I actually doing this?’ But you are, and that’s pretty special.”
Richie McCaw was speaking at the premiere of The Making of Black – an adidas documentary about the iconic status of the All Blacks jersey and the four-year process behind the new All Blacks shirt. Go to www.adidasrugby.com and join the conversation with #ForceOfBlack @adidasuk on Twitter and Instagram