The rise and rise of Richie McCaw

By Wynne Gray

Richie McCaw began his international career in sensational style and there has been little let-up since.

The 20-year-old was one of the raw choices in John Mitchell's first All Black selection but after a month's work in Ireland, Scotland and Argentina, McCaw had signalled his pedigree.

Man of the match against Ireland on his test debut at Lansdowne Rd, the openside flanker showed his class and how New Zealand remained blessed with loose forward talent. McCaw was on his way.

Five seasons later we continue to marvel at McCaw's speed, strength, agility and instincts.

He has long since qualified as a Hall of Famer in New Zealand rugby and tomorrow is set to be crowned as the next All Black skipper.

He has already led New Zealand against Wales and Ireland when the retired Tana Umaga was rested but tomorrow is the official start of his tenure with an announcement at his rugby club in Christchurch.

What has to be answered tomorrow is whether McCaw will be one of the exceptions, someone who plays in the Super 14 playoffs and will be retained for the opening June 10 test against Ireland.

Given the separate, special announcement tomorrow it seems likely McCaw will play against Ireland.

It would be a nice piece of symmetry, as men from the Emerald Isles have been milestone markers in his career since that opening test in November 2001.

The most extraordinary moment came less than a year later, in Durban, when McCaw helped save Irish referee David McHugh from an embittered South African supporter who ran on to the field and attacked the official.

Neither they nor anyone else at Kings Park that day will forget that episode.

"Obviously it was a very surreal experience and I was very thankful for the intervention of Richie McCaw and A.J. Venter," McHugh told the Herald.

"The medical opinion was that had the players not got involved my shoulder would have been broken rather than dislocated. I don't remember much about it," said McHugh, who has met McCaw several times since.

"But the rescue just shows the nature of the guy. Not only is Richie McCaw one of the most outstanding opensiders to play this game but he is also a thorough gentleman."

Richard Hugh McCaw's voyage began on the last day of 1980 when he was born to parents who farmed in the Hakataramea Valley in South Canterbury.

His mother Margaret was a teacher, his father Don never played rugby, and his only sibling, Joanna, plays netball in Christchurch.

As a youngster McCaw enjoyed all the outdoor pursuits the area offered and he played rugby for the nearby Kurow club in North Otago where coach and local farmer Barney McCone set him on his way.

"I had him from about the time he was six until he was about 13 and went away to board," recalled McCone.

"He was always very quick to react and his ability was always there. He did stand out, he had a really good attitude and he usually played at No 8 for us. I have not really seen another like him."

Down at Otago Boys High, McCaw was head boy and captain of the 1st XV before he headed for Lincoln University to pursue his agricultural and rugby interests.

Otago had set their sights on using another rising young flanker, Sam Harding, and Canterbury were grateful to claim McCaw.

He only played a few minutes in the Super 12 in 2001 but a full NPC campaign persuaded Mitchell that McCaw had the goods for international rugby. All Black No 1014 was ready.

Is he ready for the captaincy?

"Yes - and who are the alternatives" might be the response of the All Black selectors, even though they have been trying hard to expand their leadership group.

McCaw has been Umaga's deputy since Graham Henry took over the All Blacks in 2004 and has been earmarked for the job.

Aaron Mauger did captain the side against the Barbarians in 2004 but the Umaga-McCaw leadership axis has been strong.

There is widespread respect within the All Blacks for McCaw's calibre but as in any team, there are strands of uncertainty, whispers about whether he will be a quality captain.

Nothing nasty, just the sort of questions which percolate through any organisation.

McCaw is ready for that challenge and does not believe captaincy is as daunting as it may have been for some of his predecessors.

"In the past it could have been quite a lonely position whereas now we've got guys who back each other up," he said.

"If it happens it'll be exciting and a huge honour but at the end of the day you've still got to be the No 1 player in your position to be out there."

Of that there is no doubt, no question at all.

McCaw is unchallenged, numero uno in his No 7 jersey and probably at blindside or No 8 as well if he shifted there.

So why are there any reservations about his leadership? Because the job is massive, greater than even McCaw will believe.

It is an all-consuming pressure, it will chew even further into his privacy and for a 25-year-old, that is a tough deal.

Then there are the injuries and the confrontations he will have inevitably with referees in his specialty combat zone: the breakdown.

McCaw has suffered several serious concussions in the past few years; it is something of an occupational hazard.

It was serious enough in 2004 to remove him from rugby for several months, from a large chunk of last season's Super 12, then the final Lions test and a Grand Slam test with England.

McCaw's relationship with referees will also come into greater international focus as he pushes the boundaries at the breakdown. What will be the effect if an official consistently penalises the All Black captain?

Remember the furore when Neemia Tialata throttled McCaw as the Hurricanes became more frustrated with the Crusaders skipper's antics during the Super 14?

There was an unseemly aftermath but McCaw fronted his accusers, he answered the complaints, he discussed the criticism and debated the issues like the champion he is.

That's what leaders do.

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