Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Return to 2011: Heroic McCaw defies all logic

Richie McCaw during the 2011 Rugby World Cup semifinal match against Australia. Photo /  Greg Bowker
Richie McCaw during the 2011 Rugby World Cup semifinal match against Australia. Photo / Greg Bowker

Pre-tournament, Prime Minister John Key joked that he'd give Richie McCaw a knighthood if the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup. Well, he laughed and gave the impression it was a joke after he said it.

Maybe it's not a joke - goodness knows the skipper deserves recognition. A knighthood ... why not? Arise Sir Richie doesn't sound ridiculous, especially when the difficulties he has encountered this campaign - this season in fact - are fully appreciated.

Heroic acts and defiant performances have been staples of McCaw's career. But he has played this tournament on one good foot - which even for him is incredible. He hasn't trained with his team-mates, not fully - each session in its entirety - since the opening week.

He had to pull out of the Japan game with a strained calf; he was cautious leading into the French game - not taking a full part in every session; he skipped a few days before Canada and then withdrew from the game because his foot wouldn't settle and hasn't trained with the team once since.

He's been in the gym, working off his feet since the knockout rounds. The situation is highly irregular.

For the captain to be so absent could have potentially been disruptive. The team, however, have coped admirably and clearly, given the way they destroyed the Wallabies last week, haven't been adversely affected.

As for McCaw, his performances haven't skipped a beat. Despite the fact so many analysts have been determined to bestow the title of best openside on David Pocock and hail McCaw as a fading force, the All Black skipper continues to play as if he's untouchable.

Against France in the pool round, the night he won his 100th cap, he pounded through 80 minutes of world-class craft. For those who have the time or inclination, focusing on just McCaw for 10 minutes makes for enlightening viewing. That night in particular would have been a good one to see how he really does maraud; how enormous his engine truly is.

What never drops with McCaw is his work-rate; he is perpetual motion but never one to waste energy. Against the Wallabies it was almost miraculous how he appeared in support of the tackled player to secure possession.

It didn't seem possible that he could be involved as much as he was. Pocock, judged solely on the ability to time the steal off the tackled player, is probably the best in the world, but he can't match McCaw in all round ability; in all round contribution.

"I thought he [McCaw] was outstanding both in playing and leadership. I don't think there's any doubt that he played the better game," was Graham Henry's assessment when he was asked who he felt had played better.

It was following the defeat of Australia, as McCaw and Henry fielded questions, that the awe in which the skipper is held became evident.

As much as Henry wanted to knock all the euphoria on the head to try to keep a sense of perspective, his pride, his sense of genuine admiration for McCaw was at times almost too hard to contain.

Hardly one to go all weak at the knees, Henry has had operational dealings with many of the big All Black personalities of the recent age. Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke, Tana Umaga and McCaw - Henry has coached them all, and while he would be loath to name just one who maybe stood out that little bit more, it's probable that McCaw might be the nomination.

It's not just the longevity of their working relationship. Yes, they have worked together as coach and captain for five years, and as coach and player for eight, but it's the strength of McCaw's character and excellence that would win him the vote.

That strength of character has never been tested as in recent weeks. McCaw has been receiving pain-killing injections in his foot and yet he's led the All Blacks to a World Cup final.

He has barely trained and yet his aerobic capacity has been at its usual phenomenal level. The pressure on the team, on the skipper, has been intense and yet he meets every commitment with that laconic ease of his - never hurried or frazzled. McCaw is apparently a giant emotional sponge who can absorb just about anything.

"He's an inspiration to this team. He's an inspirational New Zealander," said Henry of McCaw. Why not a knighthood? Probably the only reason is that there is unquestionably more to come.

Again, many are keen to see this as the McCaw swansong; the defining moment of a career that will begin the inexorable slide to mediocrity as age and the enormous physical pounding he has taken begin to catch up.

Maybe not even McCaw can defy medical science or the ticking of the clock. But he can fix his foot over the summer. He can rest his engine too, and by February, he'll be hungry again.

If the All Blacks are successful tonight, in time, the thought will grow that perhaps McCaw could be the first captain to lead a side to a successful defence of a World Cup.

Ridiculous? Probably, but ridiculous is also leading the All Blacks to victory on one foot. Ridiculous is winning 100 test caps as an openside. Ridiculous is winning the IRB Player of the Year award three times.

Arise Sir Richie of the Ridiculous. It has a ring to it.

- Herald on Sunday

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