‘The greatest All Black we’ve ever had’ – Richie McCaw retires
New Zealand legend calls time on a magnificent career
Retiring All Black skipper Richie McCaw is known by many names to Kiwi rugby fans – “Captain Fantastic”, “The Real McCaw”, “Richie McAwesome” – but team-mates simply call him GOAT: Greatest Of All Time.
Statistics back up the players' assessment – McCaw is rugby's most capped test player, three-time world player of the year and the only captain to win the World Cup twice.
After 15 years at the top, the 34-year-old bowed out on Thursday on an unprecedented 148 test caps – 111 matches as captain – with 131 won, two drawn and just 15 lost.
His decision, which was widely anticipated, came the day after the unexpected death of former All Blacks winger Jonah Lomu at the age of 40 had rocked the rugby-mad country.
“I’m going to be hanging up my boots, the end of my rugby days. My last game for the All Blacks and as a professional rugby player was the World Cup final a couple of weeks ago,” McCaw told a news conference on Thursday.
“I sit here today with no regrets over what I have done as a rugby player. I think I played some of my best rugby over those last couple of weeks.”
“He's the greatest All Black we've ever had,” coach Steve Hansen said after McCaw led New Zealand to a dominant 34-17 win over Australia to claim back-to-back world titles at Twickenham last month.
“You shouldn't play 148 matches as a flanker, that's unheard of. You put your body on the line every time you play there.”
“I thought his last game in the World Cup final was one of the best he played,” added Hansen on Thursday.
“Like everybody, you have to pick the right time to go and he couldn’t have picked a better time.
“He has been a terrific player and leader and probably the greatest we have had.”
Although the debate over whether McCaw was the greatest player the game has ever seen is destined to rage on, very few can claim to have performed at such a high level for so long.
“One thing I have been proud of has been my consistency as a rugby player,” McCaw said. “I’m pretty proud to have performed at a level that was reasonably good. That’s something I’ll be able to reflect on with some pride.”
McCaw, who will be 35 in December, said his immediate plan was to start work as a commercial helicopter pilot in Christchurch.
“It’s something I’m passionate about,” he said. “I’m excited with what’s in the future. I have enjoyed my time as a rugby player but I am looking forward to what’s coming.
“I guess it’s the end of a chapter and the start of a new one. But it has been a hell of a ride.”
McCaw's standing in New Zealand is such that he was voted the country's most trusted person a few years ago ahead of charity workers, war veterans and scientists.
Richie ‘McAwesome’ by the numbers:
- 148 - McCaw's world-record tally of test caps earned from 2001 to 2015. Closest rivals are Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland/British & Irish Lions) on 141 and George Gregan (Australia) 139.
- 88.5 - The All Blacks' winning percentage with McCaw in the team. By comparison, Pele’s Brazil had a winning percentage of 72.5 and Shane Warne’s Australia won 63.45 per cent in tests.
- 3 - World Rugby (IRB) player of the year in 2006, 2009 and 2010. Joint wins record with fellow All Black Dan Carter (2005, 2012, 2015).
- 3 - Yellow cards during his 15-year international career, despite being condemned as a “serial cheat” by some pundits. In comparison, Australia’s Michael Hooper, another flanker, has picked up five in 51 tests.
- 2 - Rugby World Cup titles (2011 and 2015). Under McCaw the All Blacks became the first team to win back-to-back World Cups, capping a remarkable career.
His superhero image was enhanced when he played with a broken foot leading the All Blacks to victory over France in the 2011 World Cup final.
But such accolades are only part of the story of player who has generated equal parts exasperation and admiration among opponents with his mastery of the flanker's dark arts.
He has also endured tough times, including dropping the ball with his first touch on debut against Ireland in 2001 and excoriating criticism of his captaincy after a disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign.
McCaw grew up as a farmboy in the remote South Island area of Kurow. His autobiography “The Open Side” includes a picture of a surprisingly chubby teenager in a rugby shirt.
Hansen recalled last year that he was underwhelmed at his first sight of the 17-year-old in a Canterbury schools match, although some telling qualities did shine through.
“Richie's not a natural athlete, When he first arrived he had four feet and couldn't catch a cold,” he said.
“But what he did have was a massive capacity to learn ... and a massive, massive ticker.”
A turning point came when McCaw was selected for the New Zealand under-19 trials and his uncle, a respected provincial player, told him to write down his rugby aspirations on a napkin.
“Sign it Great All Black,” the uncle said.
“I couldn't bring myself to write the words Great All Black, so I wrote G.A.B. instead,” he said in his book.
Despite his modesty, the young McCaw still took his note and pinned it in a secret spot high in a cupboard, where only he could see it and take inspiration.
The same mixture of drive and humility stayed with McCaw as he scaled rugby's heights, rubbing off on a team that arguably only reached its potential after shedding an arrogance that abetted five straight World Cup failures.
At training, he was always the first on the pitch and last off it. To the media, he talked about the team and his pride in being an All Black, never his individual achievements.
Off the park, he has kept his life private, ordinary and non-controversial, prompting Hansen to describe him as “bright as hell but a bit boring”.
The only hint of controversy during McCaw's career stems from persistent accusations of cheating at the breakdown, where he has few rivals at scavenging turnovers.
Springbok lock Victor Matfield claimed referees let McCaw “get away with murder” in the contact area, while England fans and media vociferously criticised a player their team could not dominate.
Supporters point out McCaw received only three yellow cards during his international career, while the man himself has dismissed such criticism as “same old, same old”, saying his role was to play on the edge of the law.
Unlike contemporaries such as Dan Carter and Conrad Smith, McCaw refused to confirm his post-World Cup retirement plans for more than a year, hinting he may continue.
While his test total is tantalisingly close to 150, even his close friend, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, said there was nothing left for him to achieve as a player.
“Part of him will be saying 'why don't I kick on?' but on the other side of the coin, maybe he's at the pinnacle of what he's doing?” Key said this month.