There is no denying the aura he possesses in his standing as a sporting icon, but Richie McCaw seems somewhat reluctant to be the centre of attention over the next month and a half.
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As captain of a New Zealand side bidding to make history by retaining the World Cup and his own impending retirement, he cannot escape the spotlight.
McCaw accepts that, but is bashful when you mention the plaudits or praise bestowed upon him ever since, aged 20, he became All Black No1014 with a Test bow against Ireland in 2001. I reveal how legendary former skipper Sean Fitzpatrick told Sport360 that “Richie is the greatest All Black ever and the greatest leader of a team.”
It is an endorsement that makes a proud McCaw pause before he delivers a response that reiterates his humility and values. “That’s pretty humbling to hear,” he says. “I thought he (Fitzpatrick) was pretty damn good at what he did. But being an All Black teaches you that it’s a team sport – and no one player is bigger than the team.
“It’s something I’ve always lived by and all the guys do. Everyone’s got an ego and you enjoy people saying nice things, but you can’t come off the ground or anything like that. That’s what makes it special to be an All Black.”
And during his side’s era of dominance, there is no doubt McCaw is a special player, an openside flanker blessed with an unrivalled skill set and unbelievable courage, having famously played with a broken foot in the 8-7 win over France that made the All Blacks world champions in 2011. When he led his side out against Australia last month, he surpassed Brian O’Driscoll as the most-capped Test player of all time and has a remarkable win percentage of 88.73 after 15 defeats and two draws in those 142 matches.
Significantly, one of those victories ended his nation’s 24-year wait for World Cup glory when they triumphed on home soil after unsuccessful ventures in 2003 and 2007.
It is a winning feeling he would love to repeat in England as he prepares to call time on his distinguished career at the age of 34.
“It would be awesome, but you realise you have to earn everything you get from a tournament like this,” says McCaw on the prospect of a perfect finale. “A lot of the teams, a lot of players, will be thinking the same and I’m not trying to play it down… I love to win, but we haven’t earned anything yet.
“What we have done in the last year, the last two, three years, means absolutely zero. It’s what happens from today onwards that counts.
“We all come back at the start line, we’ve all got an equal chance. That’s the message I give to the players – don’t assume anything.
“It shouldn’t be about being more relaxed after winning four years ago. If we come here with that attitude of let’s see what happens we will go home early.
“You have to thrive on the pressure too. The rewards are heightened in a World Cup, but with that comes pressure. But I guess if you look at that as a great big thing, it will be a big thing, a weight, that lays you down. But it’s just about controlling what you can.
“Every year, every game, you gave to perform. If you don’t, you let the legacy of the All Blacks down. The only reason you won’t stay playing the way you can, is when you turn up and think you’ve done it before and you will do it again.”
While guarding against complacency, Steve Hansen’s men are favourites with a seemingly perfect blend of experience and talented newcomers such as winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, who made a two-try Test debut against Australia in August.
But McCaw warns: “We have certainly got some good men here, but that doesn’t guarantee anything, it gives you a start, that’s all.
“Look at the other teams and the quality players out there. The difference is not about how good you are, but to produce it when it counts. Of course you need special players, but you need to do it together, it’s not about individuals. These guys [like Milner-Skudder] coming in, in their first year, I think that’s a great thing about the All Blacks. It keeps us guys who have been around a while excited and you just want to do well.”
It is that excitement that McCaw wants to enjoy rather than endless talk of retirement. “To be honest, I haven’t really got too carried away thinking about it – that’s why I haven’t made a final decision on what I’m doing,” he says. “I’ve been focused on doing well in this tournament. If I’d sat there and said this was definitely the last, and I’ve said so, then I might have had a different attitude.
“I’ve given a bit of a hint of what it will probably be, but even then, myself, I still haven’t shut the door totally.”
So could a big-money move to a French or English side still beckon like it has for teammates Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu?
“Probably not, but you never know,” McCaw tells Sport360. “It will be tough [to finish]. Rugby has been a big part of my life, but it’s been amazing up to this point and I’ve had some great times and played with some of the best guys in the world with the All Blacks.
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“It’s what you dream of as a kid and it’s been pretty awesome to do that. But everyone knows that as a professional sportsman that you can’t go on forever.
“What you don’t want to do, you don’t want to go out with regrets and that you haven’t done it right. It’s not about the winning or losing, but have you given it everything you have got? That’s how I want to go.”
While McCaw is determined to go out on a rugby high, he also plans to be flying high in the future.
“I’ve thought about coaching, but I’m not really interested in it to be honest,” he reveals about life after rugby. “I just think that when that time comes, nothing will replace the playing side. That may change [in time], but at this stage, I think it would frustrate me too much. Punditry? Nah, I’d love to do something different. I enjoy my flying and it’s an option.
“I’ve got my aeroplane and helicopter glider licence, and nearly finished my commercial aeroplane licence. I’m not thinking about it as a job, but more of a hobby.” McCaw will think more about that after the tournament ends on October 31 – and also just what he has achieved in the game to have a knighthood waiting for when he finishes.
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