True Grit: Richie McCaw

By Dylan Cleaver

Richie McCaw. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Richie McCaw. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Not once in 2011 did Richie McCaw save a life. Not literally anyway.

He didn't invent anything that made life easier for New Zealanders and he didn't engage in any great philanthropic offerings.

McCaw, 30, didn't do anything a great deal differently than he has for the past 10 years. In fact, if you're going to be absolutely blunt, he was never quite at his brilliant best in 2011.

Yet along the way, as he battled an insidious injury and the weight of public expectation, he came to embody the very essence of what it means to be a Good Kiwi Bloke - resilience, humility and pride.

Richard Hugh McCaw, Rugby World Cup-winning captain, is our New Zealander of the Year.

IT WOULD be neat and tidy to say that McCaw's year began to unravel the same time that it did for thousands of other Cantabrians, on February 22 at 12.51pm, but he had already hit a speed bump three weeks earlier.

While doing a notorious yo-yo fitness test with the Crusaders on January 31, McCaw developed a nagging pain in his right foot. A week later he announced that he would miss the first six weeks of the Super 15.

In a year when everything to do with our national sport - some would say national identity - revolved around the World Cup in September and October, it wasn't great news, but it was delivered so matter-of-factly that it seemed almost trivial.

"Being a big year, we'll deal with it now and hopefully that will be all we have to deal with," McCaw said at the time. "I am going to require a screw to be put in there. It's not a major really, just one of those things you have to deal with and get ready to play again."

If he knew then what he does now.

Sitting in a soulless hotel conference room last week, performing his last round of media duties for the year, McCaw is all smiles as he eyes the cast that encases the same troubled appendage.

"Probably not," he says when asked if he would have continued playing if it had been a "normal" season and not a World Cup campaign. "I would have taken time to sort out what was going on."

The foot never did heal properly. The screw that was inserted in February ended up causing more harm than good. By the time that became obvious, McCaw was left with Hobson's choice: play through some serious pain and risk doing long-term damage, or miss the World Cup and a shot at redemption.

Remember that by the time the final pool match with Canada rolled out, New Zealand's other "irreplaceable" player, Dan Carter, had already been ruled out, sparking a scarcely believable chain of events that saw the fourth-choice first five-eighth, Stephen Donald, slot the decisive penalty in the final.

"I'm just thankful it was good enough to carry on playing," McCaw says. "It hurt after each of the [World Cup] games. It took a couple of days to settle down before it was ready to go again, but I actually got to the point where I could play without thinking about it too much.

"Once the whistle went I found that adrenaline was a pretty good painkiller. The big fear I had was that the pain would get to the point where I was thinking about it while I was playing, but I never really got to there."

Assistant coach Steve Hansen, a shoo-in to take over from Graham Henry next year, is still awed by McCaw's resilience.

"To be able to do what he did with his injury - not once, not twice but three times - was colossal."

At the time, the All Blacks deliberately played down fears of McCaw's injury to the point of being misleading. It was, admits Hansen, a plan to ease public anxiety in the wake of Carter's misfortune.

"That's on the money," he says. "The anxiety was not about Richie being able to play. He'd done it once and knew he could do it again, but a lot of the anxiety was created by the media seeing someone like Matt Todd turn up [to training]. That anxiety flowed through to the general public.

"It was about keeping the media and the fans reassured that he was okay to play. We knew it was serious. After playing he couldn't walk on it. He was so determined to be involved he did everything he could, along with great support from the medical staff, to be right for the weekend."

Born in North Otago, raised on a Hakataramea farm that is, technically, just over the border in South Canterbury, secondary school educated in Dunedin, and a resident of Canterbury, McCaw is a product of his South Island environs. His natural instinct is to deflect, to understate, to play things down.

In the days following the World Cup triumph, the coach took his captain fishing. Henry's eyes were drawn to McCaw's grotesquely distended foot.

As Henry related it, the conversation went like this.

Henry: "Gee Richie, your foot's a bit swollen."

McCaw: "Yeah, Ted, it is."

FORGET FOR a minute the wider ramifications of hosting the World Cup, from the ephemeral economic gains to other less tangible benefits. Really, its great success was that it reawakened the country's love affair with rugby.

Lots of things have combined over the past few decades that have made the code harder to love: the Springbok Tour, arrogance, professionalism, night rugby, too much rugby, wall-to-wall TV coverage, player power and crass commercialism to name a few. Rugby had become less of a religion and more of a business.

The relationship between the fan and athlete had never been so one-sided. Where once the All Blacks worked and lived among us as "ordinary" New Zealanders, they are now cosseted by the professional machine, only reachable if you're willing to spend money on tickets and pay-TV subscriptions.

It is McCaw's great skill in that although he is at the very apex of professional sport - he and Dan Carter are New Zealand's two highest-paid players and their media and public commitments are strictly vetted and controlled by agents and communications managers - he has retained a sense of normality.

His down-to-earth image is uncultivated. The casual she'll-be-right shrug of the shoulders when he's asked to assess problems, real or imagined, is not practiced.

It is easy to imagine McCaw leaving his door at 7.30am in the morning, doing a day's work at the office before heading to footy practice, even if that lifestyle is a million miles from the one he is living.

Put simply, McCaw is a popular chap, but even he sounds genuinely awestruck at the amount of goodwill that's been thrown his way since the 8-7 win against France on October 23.

"I've had a lot of letters and everyone that comes up has a 'well done' for me. People have said to me that I must be sick of being congratulated. I'm like: 'Shit no, it's awesome'," he says. "It's blown me away really. People who wouldn't normally take a lot of interest in rugby were telling me they never even really watched the All Blacks, yet here they were watching other games and loving it."

Living in Christchurch, McCaw is acutely aware of the need for the lifting of the soul. He considers himself one of the lucky ones in that rugby provided him with the perfect escape, and understands that the results of both the Crusaders and the All Blacks, while not affecting lives, could provide a small measure of solace.

"I think you saw that during the Super Rugby campaign," he says. "People were pretty badly affected, but the one thing they got a bit of joy out of was seeing the Crusaders do pretty well.

"I knew they had the World Cup to look forward to, even though I feel they've missed out a bit, there's no doubt about that. But they still have a sense of pride about how well the All Blacks have done. Having that parade down there, I think it was hugely appreciated by everyone."

Canterbury was full of stories of heroism and stoicism. Also emerging was a healthy streak of pragmatism.

"Everyone down there seemed to get on with life and dealt with what they had to deal with," McCaw says. "That was the same with the [All Black] boys from down there. We had a World Cup to prepare for. We knew Australia, South Africa, England weren't going to have any sympathy for us on the field."

AS IT turned out, New Zealand avoided both England and South Africa at the World Cup, those two powers departing in the quarter-finals.

The Wallabies, too, were dispatched with a maximum of effort and minimum of fuss, 20-6 in the semifinals.

That left just the French. We say "just" because their poor form had only been matched by their great fortune. No team had ever won a World Cup after losing a match, let alone two as Les Bleus had in pool play.

It might not have been fait accompli, but it felt like it. We should have known better.

With 30 minutes to go, New Zealand clinging to a one-point lead and France looking the team with more petrol left in the tank, dark clouds began hovering over the country.

Did dark thoughts start entering his head?

"It's difficult to assess that now because you know the reality," he says non-commitally. "I realised going into the tournament that every team that has won it has gone through a situation where it could go either way. I expected going into the tournament that there'd be a point where we'd be in that situation. We talked about it a lot as a senior playing group and management about how you deal with those types of situations.

"Going into the final, I thought to myself, 'We haven't really been tested yet in that sort of situation', so when it got to 20 minutes to go I thought, 'Now we are, and we're going to see whether all those experiences we'd been through, whether all the work we'd done together was going to come off'. Could we handle it?

"Worry wasn't the right thing. What was going through my mind was, 'We're here now, we can't change it, it's what we do from here on that matters'. It was going to come down to one or two things.

"When I reflect on that last 20-minute period, we defended bloody well, but when we got the opportunity to have the ball with three or four minutes to go, it was pretty clinical what we did - nailed a scrum, held the ball, won the lineout. You know, of all the times to win a lineout, this was the time to get it right. That's what I found bloody satisfying. You couldn't get more pressure than at that time and we executed it."

For a rare moment, McCaw seems animated as he relives the moments many of us New Zealanders could barely stand to watch. Henry called that last quarter one of the least enjoyable experiences of his long career. McCaw's recollections are as raw and vivid, but crystallise the difference between the field and the coaches' box.

"We've always said, 'What is it you enjoy about the game?' Some games you don't actually enjoy out on the field, but when you've done the job and you're back in the changing rooms afterwards and you're satisfied that you have done what you wanted to, that's where the enjoyment and the satisfaction is.

"Yes, that last 20 minutes wasn't enjoyable to be fair, but afterwards, when you've been through those tough times, you see what you're all about - there was a fair bit of character shown there, the boys had dug pretty deep - and when you come out on the right side, you're pretty satisfied. Whether that's enjoyment, I'm not too sure, but it's the reason you do it."

Hansen says he cannot put into words how important McCaw's leadership was in those weeks, days and all-important final minutes and speaks of McCaw's rare ability that separates him from the rest.

"The one thing he can do is take himself mentally to where he needs to be to perform to a consistently high level, regardless of what has happened before. He's in the same zone 99.99 per cent of the time. Not many athletes can do that. It separates the great athletes from the good ones."

The great irony was that it took winning a World Cup for people to realise just how tough it was.

"To be fair, perhaps I only realise it now," McCaw concedes.

"The top half a dozen teams in the world are all very close and to win a World Cup you play three games in a row at your peak. You have make sure you're going in the right direction," he says, tilting his arm in an upwards incline.

"We had a pretty damn good game against the Wallabies the week before and it was a real struggle to get back to that same level, whereas the French had just scraped through, just scraped through again and probably always had that big one in them.

"They played particularly well in that final. I think New Zealanders expected the French would just roll over, but then they saw how well they played and they realised that you can take nothing for granted."

THERE ARE a few things McCaw can now take for granted - his place among the greats of the game for one. He'll end up with a few letters after his name, too, though he baulks at the idea of a knighthood, saying he'd "leave that to Ted".

He's got a four-year NZRU contract in his pocket and believes he's still getting better as a player. But for the next few weeks at least, while his foot continues healing, it is time to relax.

"I love rugby. I really enjoy it, but you do have to have time away from it as well. The last month or so, I had a couple of weeks away flying, but just being at home is nice, to get a wee bit of normality back.

"Having a weekend where you have time to go and have a beer with your mates. That's the type of thing I love about getting away from it. Even though you might spend it talking about footy, it's being able to do things where your thoughts don't revolve around how you're going to get yourself right for Saturday."

Before long his thoughts will turn to 2012. He admits he's already had a couple of chats to Crusaders' coach Todd Blackadder. "I want to go out and win a championship with the Crusaders. That's the goal. Then I'll have to earn my spot back in the All Blacks. It'll be a new coach obviously, so you have to have that attitude."

The Crusaders will be playing in a new stadium, which McCaw hopes will just be one of many projects in his home city that kick into gear.

"We're going to have to start to get some things under way. You think, 'Jeez, why is it taking this long?' But you can understand that it's huge, but I'd like to think once people start seeing progress - which probably hasn't happened until now - it will help."

•Each year our award goes to someone who we believe has either made the country a better place or demonstrated special qualities which make us proud to be New Zealanders. Previous winners are excluded, as are politicians.

Past winners

2010: Emma Woods, who forgave the teenage driver of the car that killed her son.

2009: Lenny Holmwood, who saved two policemen shot by Napier gunman Jan Molenaar.

2008: Austin Hemmings, slain as he helped a woman being attacked; Tony McClean, who drowned trying to save students trapped by floodwaters.

2007: Louise Nicholas, campaigner.

2006: Kevin Brady, Auditor-General; Paula Rebstock, Commerce Commission chairwoman.

2005: Jock Hobbs, key Rugby World Cup figure.

2004: Dr Peter Gluckman, scientist.

2003: Michael King, author.

2002: Cliff Jones, police officer.

2001: Peter Jackson, film-maker.

2000: Rob Waddell, Olympic gold medallist, Lucy Lawless, actor.

1999: Michael Joseph Savage, Prime Minister during the 1930s Great Depression (New Zealander of the Century).

1996-1998: No awards made.

1995: Sir Peter Blake, yachtsman.

1994: Aucklanders, for enduring that year's water crisis.

1993: Jane Campion, film-maker.

1992: David Shearer and Anuschka Meyer, aid workers in Somalia.

1991: Dame Malvina Major, opera singer.

The other finalists

Rena salvagers: Braved dangerous conditions to get the oil off the stricken ship.

Sam Johnson: Organiser of the Christchurch student army.

Kimberley White: Stood up to her mother's killer.

Martin Snedden: Organiser of a successful Rugby World Cup 2011.

Paula Rose: Police road safety boss in the year of a record low toll.

Noel and Annette Plowman: Gifted $30m Rotoroa Island lease - one of the largest acts of philanthropy in the city's history.

Helen Clark: United Nations development programme head.

Bernie Monk: Pike River miners' family spokesman.

Brooke Fraser: Multi-award winning Kiwi singer.

- NZ Herald

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