One of the ironclad truths in rugby is “the older we get, the better we were”. It applies at all levels of the game and allows for sepia toned nostalgia and the swapping of tall tales and whenever old comrades meet up.
Mick Cleary recently opined that the current All Blacks are good but nowhere near the best ever. He goes through the players and name checks Mils Muliaina as one of the reasons. Mils is a cracking player but he hadn’t started a test in about a year when the article was penned. C’mon Mick, try harder, Israel Dagg has started 18 tests and scored 11 tries, he’s worth a look.
The Welsh team of the 1970s get a name check (see “sepia toned nostalgia”). Sure, they were good, but they never beat NZ. Their illustrious period was book-ended by getting mauled by the All Blacks in 1969 and Andy Haden falling out of a lineout in 1978. OK, the backbone of the ’71 Lions were Welsh, but would they have won without Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride, Gordon ‘the Broon of Troon’ Brown and David Duckham?
The 1969 All Blacks themselves were pretty awesome and maybe their tour to SA in 1970 came a season too late but they couldn’t get it over the line and it would be 1996 until Sean Fitz’s men claimed NZ’s first series victory in the republic.
It’s not a scientific argument at all though and is more a story of claim and counter claim. In that vein, and seeing how he has announced his intention to take a six month sabbatical in order to extend his career until the 2015 RWC, the Mole has to say that Richie McCaw is the greatest player he has ever seen and just might be the greatest ever.
McCaw captained his team to an incredible 32-16 win against the Boks in Jo’burg at the weekend. This came a week after scorching Argentina in Buenos Aires, taking a flight across the South Atlantic, changing time zones, adjusting to altitude and playing their greatest foes in front of 80,000+ spectators. The penalty count against them after about an hour was 9-0, which says something about a McCaw captained team, but NZ ended with the bonus point.
Two moments from many stood out for me. One was when Adriaan Strauss, going low, carried the ball around the corner as NZ were making a goal line stand. McCaw launched himself at Strauss, got underneath him, turned him off balance and drove him back. The ball popped forward from contact and NZ cleared their lines. It was only due to the slow motion replay that one was able to see McCaw’s paw flick the pill back towards his own team. It was illegal, but it was awesome.
The next was when fresh legged sub Tamati Ellison made a break in a wide channel, beat a man and linked with Conrad Smith who took it forward until realising that his best option was to lay it off to his support inside. This was after 78 minutes against an enormous Springbok team in a physical game played at altitude. Who did he pass it to? That’s right – Sur Rutchie, roaming the plains and fighting in the trenches. What a great player!
My abiding memory of McCaw was when Ireland toured there in 2008. He had a sit down with Roy Keane in the week of the first test.
“Roy Keane is a superstar in football and it’s pretty special to be able to ask someone like him a few questions. Playing for Manchester United is like playing for the All Blacks. There’s an awful lot of pride that goes with it. Maybe he didn’t realise until the last six months when he went somewhere else that it just wasn’t the same. Our guys find that. When they give up or move on, they realise all the more what a great privilege it is to play for the All Blacks.”
That game was NZ ‘s first test since the harrowing experience of being beaten by France in the quarter finals of RWC07. At the time, Anton Oliver had compared it to No Man’s Land at Passchendaele. Maybe not.
That knocked the stuffing out of a lot of players who took the opportunity to pad out their pension in the Northern Hemisphere while the euro and sterling were riding high against the Kiwi dollar. McCaw stayed, and put in a shift in that first test which was incredible. His direct opponent was David Wallace, a Mole favourite. Wally was joined by Leamy and Heaslip so Ireland were pretty useful themselves. McCaw played them off the park and set a standard for what it meant to him to represent the All Blacks. A number of high profile players had moved on but the All Blacks endure and set their own standards. The Kiwis’ triumph in 2011 owes much to the mentality engendered by McCaw.
Should McCaw make it to the 2015 RWC, it will be 14 years after his international debut. Developments in technology have made travel easier and increased TV’s demand for test matches. There are far more test matches now than there used be so the number of caps isn’t a fair comparison. However, the seasons still remain the same. Colin Meads made his international debut in 1957 and retired from the international game in 1971. That’s the level McCaw is at now. Take a load off big fella.