Richie McCaw: Wounded French side at their most dangerous

Exclusive Extract: Richie McCaw's new book The Open Side:

New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw leaves the field with the Webb Ellis Cup after winning the final of the RWC 2011 against France at Eden Park Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson
New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw leaves the field with the Webb Ellis Cup after winning the final of the RWC 2011 against France at Eden Park Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson

After a brilliant display against Australia in the World Cup semifinal, McCaw's worried that everyone seems to be writing off France. Then there's the foot ...

There's a thought I'm struggling to get out of my head. We played our final last week.

It's the ritual game-day coffee with Mum and Dad and Jo and Sam in a little café just round the corner from the Heritage before the biggest game of my life: the 2011 RWC final.

Last week, we beat Australia in the semi. We played as well as we've ever played, while France narrowly, luckily, beat Wales in the other semi, after the Welsh captain was sent off for a tip-tackle quite early in the game.

Last week the whole of New Zealand was anguishing about the prospect of losing to the Aussies, including the old man. He was jumpy, up and down, up and down, couldn't drink his coffee.

He couldn't understand why I was so calm.

I wasn't that calm, but I knew the team was ready. There's a feeling you get sometimes. I could see it in our guys' eyes. When Australia was beating the All Blacks pretty regularly back at the turn of the century, I remember the great Australian No. 8 Toutai Kefu saying, 'We know how to beat these blokes.' That's what I felt last week in the build-up to the game. We know how to beat these blokes.

This week, I don't feel that. This week there's been media speculation about how much we're going to beat France by. The whole of New Zealand, it seems, thinks the Webb Ellis Cup is as good as won. Even Dad's relaxed about France, can't understand why I'm so subdued.

In the knockout phase of the RWC, you have to win every game, obviously, but you have to bring your best game to the final.

My fear is that we played our best game last week.

* * *

My foot wasn't pretty after the Argentinian game. During the build-up to Australia, in my mind I kept going back to the week before, when it had improved enough to train after four days of rest and anti-inflams. But this time, after four days I still couldn't train, I couldn't risk it. I went out in my gym shoes and stood beside Aaron and Beaver, who Ted had found whitebaiting somewhere. Beaver dropped his net and picked up the ball and ran with it, keen as. He's a good bugger.

Out at training, there were three of us standing round in our gym shoes, all leaders of our mini units, all crocked. Mils, with his cracked shoulder and Dan, back after his op. The guys in their respective units asked if Dan and Mils could come back to keep leading them, and they did. Dan's bloody amazing - no one would have begrudged his right to stay home and cry into his beer, but he came straight back to help as soon as he got out of hospital. Mils too, stranded on his 100th game and invalided out of his chance, after three RWCs, to play for the Cup.

The 'what else?' feeling had gone. We'd got used to the new normal. All that preparation for the unexpected seemed to have worked. Rather than thinking, Shit, why is all this happening to us, we're thinking, Bring it on.

We heard during the week that the Aussie camp was pretty confident. I'm not sure where this information came from, but there are people in and out of the teams' hotels all the time, and secrets are hard to keep. I know that - trying to get around the hotel without limping on my 'niggle'. However accurate the rumour might have been, it was great to hear that they were confident. I don't go along with most people who say the Wallabies are more dangerous when they're confident. I reckon they're more vulnerable.

I don't know whether the Aussies heard any rumours about us, but if they'd heard the truth, they would have been alarmed: that was the best-prepared All Black team I've ever been a part of. I knew the Aussies were going to get it. Part of it was an address on Thursday evening from Willie Apiata. He may not be a great public speaker, but he carried an aura. He talked about what he did when he won the VC, and why he did what he did, what drove him. As much as he fought for his country and his family, the main driver was his mates, the ones who stood at his shoulder, upon whom he depended for his life. I could see from the rapt faces around me that his words were sinking in. We were mates. We didn't have to face live rounds, but we were in this together and we'd get it done.

On the way to the ground on the bus, I looked out on the Great North Road part of the Fan Trail and saw a sign on one of the car yards.

I HOPE YOU'RE READY QUADE. RICHIE IS.

I wondered whether Cooper had seen it when the Aussie bus went by.

Once again, the only spoiler of a great night was my foot.

During the warm-up I didn't feel it too much, but five minutes into the game I felt it again. Something letting go. A clunk or pop or crack. The pain came back.

Again, when the ball was in play, I could get through and not think about it. It didn't inhibit me actually running around and doing things. I could put it to the side. But as soon as the whistle went and there was a lineout 30 metres away, jogging over there was bloody sore. I'd told Deb that I'd play as long as I could do my job without thinking about the pain, but as soon as I started thinking about the foot while the ball was actually in play, and the pain started affecting the decisions I was making about what I would do, that would be the time to quit.

It was sore all the way through the semi, but only really sore when the whistle went. One of the most challenging bits was running up the tunnel at halftime. Getting on and off the field was complete agony.

But when the final whistle went, the score was 20 points to 6, and we were into the final of the RWC.

I've got cabin fever. We've been three weeks in the hotel, watching this rugby festival go on around us, at the centre of it, but also remote from it. My foot hasn't helped. It's worse, taking longer to come right. I have to rest it, choose when and where I want to walk. How far. Who might see me if I limp.

I'm sick of the bloody foot. It's like stepping on a red-hot lump of coal. I have to change my gait slightly and then other parts of my foot get sore, but it kind of doesn't matter any more, because I got through the semi and I know I can play in the final. I tell myself that if it's like that for this week, I'm sweet. I can get through. If you're ever going to be a bit tough, if ever you're going to grit your teeth and get on with it, this is the time. If it had been another week after this one, I don't think I could get there. Knowing there's only one more. I keep talking to Bert. We're down to 80 minutes. That doesn't sound a lot. I can do that.

The hardest bit is around the team and around the media, particularly. I have to really grit my teeth and try to walk normally. The worst thing would be if it got out, and we lost. If it's seen as an excuse.

I've got plenty to distract me from my bloody foot.

Jock comes to talk to us about the work and inspiration that went into bringing the World Cup to New Zealand, the approach he took, the promises he made about what the rugby world could expect from us. I'm so glad he's still round to see it come to fruition.

A lot of my efforts go into making sure that the guys are on the job. We had a hell of a good game in the semi and my biggest concern is getting ourselves back to that state again. I'm having to think about all that with the coaches and leadership group. The mindset meeting on Monday. Getting us ready for a war against France, because I'm convinced that's what they'll bring.

We don't use the emotional trigger we used in the pool game against France. Instead, different players talk about their experiences of the French. Woody talks about Paris in 2004, Conrad about Lyon in 2006, I talk about Marseilles in 2009. How we attacked and beat them then. How we took their heart away from them. We talk about them being most dangerous when they're scared and don't expect to win.

That's when they die for the jersey. Like 1999, like 2007. That's what we can expect.

We hear through the grapevine that their team meeting room is plastered with newspapers, full of headlines which accuse them of cowardice, of being failures, of being an embarrassment to La France. We know that's going to get them fizzing.

I go through the familiar names. Their front row, Mas, Servat, Barcella, might be one of the few in world rugby to equal ours. Their second row of big mean lumps. Their loosies, Bonnaire, Harinordoquy and Dusautoir, the guys who did us at Cardiff, on paper the equal of JK, Reado and me. If there's a question mark over their halves, there's got to be one over ours too, without Dan.

Their centres: Aurelien Rougerie would be one of the few guys who measures up to Ma'a in power and speed. The French back three - tricky bastards, fast - when are they ever weak there? I keep going through those names. Any team with these guys in it has at least one great match in them and they haven't played it yet.

Whereas we might have.

I try not to think too much about the Dan what-ifs. We left quite a lot of points out on the park against Australia: a missed conversion and several penalties by Piri and a penalty by Aaron. Dan would have nailed most of them, perhaps all of them. Ten or a dozen points. It didn't hurt us in that game, but it might if it happens again. Luke McAlister missed a bread-and-butter conversion in Cardiff that turned out to be the difference. But so did the French. Mind games. I try not to think about it, but logic says losing the best play-maker and kicker in the world is surely going to count sooner or later. Sooner is over: it's later already.

We all know that as much as we have to believe that our fate is in our hands, history says we also have to survive one of those tipping moments, on which winning and losing the World Cup turns.

We know there'll be a moment when the next minute, the next play, the next second, will decide who wins and who loses. We know to expect it and be ready for it. We know we've got to execute in that moment, rather than freeze or worry about what will happen if we don't.

You could look at some of those moments and blame fate, chance, rub of the green, bounce of the ball, sheer luck. Whatever, that moment hasn't come for us, yet. You could argue that the French have had several already.

But I know that the game doesn't care who deserves what. No memory, no sentiment, no history, no fairytales. You have to believe that you can go out there and make it happen.

George Gregan brings me a bottle of Dom Pérignon for my 100th test. The last thing he says to me is, 'It won't fall in your lap, you know.'

On Saturday, I get through my last captain's run, but cut it short.

On the afternoon of the game, still worried at how relaxed and expectant Dad was at this morning's coffee, I take out the Warwick and go through my visualisations. Usually, on the facing page, I would have already listed my tick-offs for the week: weights, pad work, clean-outs, ball skills, evading, fending. This week that page is blank, and when I write down my mantras, they seem pared down to bedrock.

No wonder. This is our 12th test in 14 weeks.

The toughest one to deliver on might be the second-last one. Enjoy. I'm struggling to live that part of it any more. I've just got to get through it.

Eighty minutes to go.


On the final whistle in the 2011 RWC final

Offside! Penalty.

The crowd is off its head. I see our bench jumping in the air, but I can't believe it's over. Our guys are celebrating. I grab Andy by the shoulder.

Stop everything. Slow it down. Is it over if we put the ball out? Is it finished? Andy says it is.

He hoofs it into the tiers of the stand, where everyone's on their feet, arms raised.

I raise mine as Joubert blows for fulltime.

Ali hugs me. Someone else.

I bend over, hands on knees. Then sink to one knee. We've won. I should be happy. All I feel is relief.

It's finished. I can stop. I don't have to do this any more.

The guys are jumping around, the crowd is so loud I can't hear what they're saying. Someone pulls me up, hugs me.

I do the after-match on auto-pilot. Get my medal from dear old Jock. Lift the Webb Ellis Cup. The moment I've been waiting four years for. I thought I'd feel more. It's like I'm seeing it all through someone else's eyes. The welling emotion of the crowd rolling over me, too mentally and physically shot to really respond. I try to remember what needs to be said, to thank those who need to be thanked.

We're out there so long I get cold.

Sometime later, I'm in the changing room, sitting by myself with my winner's medal around my neck, a beer in my hand, still in my gear. Ted's standing in front of me, patting me on the head, saying something, probably that we've still got to do the media conference, and I start shivering. I feel cold, bloody awful. Someone gets me some Powerade and lollies to get my sugar up, so I can do media.

It takes me quite a long time, even once we get back to the hotel and I see everyone around, so happy, to begin to feel it myself, to get past the relief that it is truly finished, that I don't have to get up tomorrow and start again.

It's over. We've won. Believe it.


On the 2007 RWC quarter final loss

...I don't blame [Wayne] Barnes, but I do blame the people who appointed the most inexperienced referee on the roster to a RWC quarter-final between the hosts and the favourites. I thought both teams deserved a referee with experience. My beef isn't with Barnes so much as with his inexperience. This was Barnes' biggest game by far. On the big stage, an inexperienced referee is likely to become so afraid of making a mistake that he stops making any decisions at all. By the end of it, I thought Barnes was frozen with fear and wouldn't make any big calls.

***

... The guts of it is that in that moment, our leadership group failed under pressure.

That includes me. Rather than saying, 'Have a pot if it's on,' I should have been more directive - and so should the senior players in the backline. But it also includes the coaches: we didn't have a drop-kick in our play-book.

We hadn't as a group run through the scenario of what happens if it gets tight and we need one or two things to happen to win the game. We believed that we were good enough to go out and play well. We never imagined ourselves to be in a sticky situation like that, despite history showing that all RWC-winning teams have been in those situations. In that sense it was a failure of imagination as much as anything.


The book

Reproduced from Richie McCaw: The Open Side by Richie McCaw with Greg McGee, with permission from Hachette New Zealand Ltd, published by Hodder Moa, $49.99 RRP, available nationwide today.

- NZ Herald

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