Richie McCaw has long been assured prime position in All Blacks folklore but on Saturday he will confirm his place among the world’s sporting greats.
To captain any team is a privilege and if that side happens to be your country, then the honour is all the greater. But to have done it 100 times, as McCaw will do at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, is unprecedented in rugby. Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll, now retired, and South Africa’s John Smit are the other captains to have made it past 80.
That the All Blacks have been one of the most dominant teams in the history of any sport, under the leadership of World Cup-winning captain McCaw, makes his achievement all the more remarkable.
Other than Auckland, there is no more fitting setting for McCaw’s milestone than the venue where he led New Zealand for the first time and, very nearly, the last.
He wore the captain’s armband against Wales in Cardiff in 2004 and almost became the first All Black skipper for more than half a century to lose to Wales, before edging a close contest 26-25.
“At the time I’d only had half a dozen games as captain of Canterbury and I thought, ‘that’s enough, it can’t be that much harder’. But you look back on the lessons you’ve been through, the ups and downs, and you wonder how you survived,” said McCaw.
“I had no idea what I was doing back then. When I started I felt like I needed to have all the answers, to know it all myself, always be the guy talking. But as time goes on you become more comfortable if someone else has the answer and you go with that. You get satisfaction seeing other guys make the right calls.”
McCaw took over the New Zealand captaincy from Tana Umaga on a full-time basis two years later and on Saturday will play his 137th Test match for the All Blacks. The game may have changed dramatically since his Test debut in 2001, yet McCaw, now 33, has evolved, adapted and strived to remain at the peak of his game.
“You can run him over with a tractor and he would still get up and have another go. Even from a young age there was courage there. But what sets him apart, outside of his mental strength, is the ability to want to get better,” said the All Blacks head coach, Steve Hansen. “Even now, after 136 Tests, he wants to be better and that’s phenomenal for an athlete who’s been around as long as he has.
“Most players strive for the first couple of seasons [to stay] as an international and then they flatline or even dip away. But Richie’s game has continually evolved over time and hence why he’s probably the greatest player we’ve had.”
There is history in Cardiff for McCaw, Hansen and the rest of the All Blacks, and not just for that starting point in 2004. Three years later they returned and lost to France in the quarter-final of the World Cup. Perhaps with a wonderful sense of schadenfreude, World Cup organisers have set next year’s schedule so New Zealand will return to the Millennium Stadium to play a quarter-final, potentially against France.
The presence of Wayne Barnes as referee for Saturday’s match in Cardiff will only heighten those memories, as the official also took charge of that quarter-final defeat in 2007.
McCaw’s opposite number, Sam Warburton, is part of a Wales back-row making a record 19th appearance together as a trio. Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau and Warburton will surpass the tally set by John Taylor, Dai Morris and Mervyn Davies between 1969 and 1973. “It’s impossible to compare players from different eras but these three have been great for us and a massive part of what we have achieved in recent years,” said the Wales defence coach, Shaun Edwards.
“They all came through together as part of [Wales head coach] Warren Gatland’s youth policy. He threw them into the team and let them develop together. They’ve been so proficient over the last few years and hopefully for many years to come. We are lucky to have them. They are model professionals, they work hard and they lead excellent lifestyles.”
Merv “The Swerve” Davies and his sidekicks lost just three of their 18 games together, twice to the All Blacks, as even Welsh rugby’s legends failed to prevent a losing streak that has stretched for 61 years. The new generation, including fit-again Leigh Halfpenny, could yet break new ground.
“There have been some great moments in my career in a Welsh jersey but winning on Saturday would top the lot,” said Halfpenny. “If it was to come down to me taking a potentially winning kick, those are the moments I have spent my life practising for.”
Wales have at least been spared facing Dan Carter. The fly-half averaged 18 points a game in nine matches against the Welsh but has been rested after he was deemed “rusty” from his injury lay-off.Reuse content