Late last month, Richie McCaw, just about the best player on the planet, was in a shopping mall in the middle of Christchurch when New Zealand's second city was struck by an earthquake for the second time in five and a half months. "As I was on crutches, I wasn't in a position to move in a hurry," the injured All Black captain recalled yesterday. "It was a pretty scary moment. But it wasn't until I got home and started receiving text messages from friends and seeing the extent of the damage on the news bulletins that I realised the scale of it. It's been a very sad time for those of us who live here."
McCaw is off crutches now – while a stress fracture of the foot, suffered during pre-Super 15 training with the Christchurch-based Crusaders, continues to sideline him, he expects to be fit by mid-April – but his city will take months and years to recover. One of the great rugby towns, it had been awarded seven games in this autumn's World Cup, including two quarter-finals. Last week, it was struck from the roster. Those games will now be played elsewhere, principally in Auckland and Dunedin.
As is his wont, the man who stands shoulder to shoulder with the very finest breakaway forwards in All Black history – Waka Nathan, Graham Mourie and Michael Jones are no longer considered to be his superiors, merely his equals – did not question the decision. "Much as I would have loved to see the World Cup in Christchurch, reality said it just wasn't possible," he admitted. "There are still a heap of damaged buildings in town waiting to be pulled down. To keep us on the list wouldn't have been the right thing to do.
"Will it make a difference to our mindset when the World Cup begins? I'd like to think we as All Blacks never need extra motivation of any description, but we'll be conscious of the tough time the people of Christchurch will still be going through and it would be good to put a smile on their faces.
"What happened certainly put rugby in its proper perspective, but come the World Cup, the pressure on us to win will definitely be there. That part of being an All Black won't change."
Unable to play their Super 15 games in home surroundings at Lancaster Park, which did not escape the effects of the 6.3-magnitude quake, the Crusaders are in "have boots, will travel" mode. On Sunday at Twickenham, they play a high-profile game against the Durban-based Sharks, who will field at least as many southern hemisphere big-hitters in a line-up shot through with quality. Had McCaw been fit, he might have put 5,000 on the gate all on his ownsome. As it is, the crowd will have to make do with Daniel Carter, Sonny Bill Williams, John Smit and Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira.
Super rugby, in its many numerical guises, has frequently been dismissed as "candyfloss" on this side of the Equator, although even the fiercest critic must now accept that in terms of pace, skill and dynamism, it is currently setting some cutting-edge standards. Unsurprisingly, given the amount of time he has spent in the thick of it, McCaw has never bought the idea that southern hemisphere franchise rugby is anything less than "real" rugby.
"I guess this weekend gives people an opportunity to see what it's all about at first hand," he said, an unmistakeable note of "we'll show you Luddites" in his voice. "When you compare it to the Premiership and whatnot, Super15 has the advantage of being played in good conditions, with a dry ball on a fast track. That certainly impacts on the style of rugby. Also, I think teams have moved on from the defence-dominated kicking rugby we were seeing a couple of years ago. They have thought about the attacking side of the game and changed the emphasis.
"But when we get to the World Cup, I think some northern hemisphere countries will challenge. I didn't see much of the Six Nations – I certainly didn't get up in the middle of the night to watch it live – but going by the highlights, the games were based around physicality, just as they were when we played in Europe last November. When you look at the last competition in 2007, that physicality went a long way in the wash-up."
* As expected, the Rugby Football Union has appointed the former England outside-half Rob Andrew as its first rugby operations director. His current post as director of elite rugby has been abolished, ahead of the establishment of a new performance directorship. Senior figures at the governing body, including the chairman Martyn Thomas, are keen to give the 2003 World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward that title, but Woodward has yet to apply for the post.