Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Captain's run far from over

Captain Fantastic: Richie McCaw could conceivably become the first All Black to reach 150 tests and the first to reach 100 as captain. Photo / NZ Herald
Captain Fantastic: Richie McCaw could conceivably become the first All Black to reach 150 tests and the first to reach 100 as captain. Photo / NZ Herald

Such is the worth and continued excellent form of Richie McCaw that it is becoming increasingly hard to see when Sam Cane might be sighted in an All Black jersey again.

It's possibly even getting to the stage where Kieran Read, a bit like Prince Charles, could find that while he's next in line to the captaincy, he may be overlooked for a younger man by the time the job becomes vacant.

The influence of McCaw only grows and his value to the All Blacks, as both player and captain, is greater now than at any other time in his career.

There may not be the mild panic of old any more when Dan Carter is ruled out of action, but it would be a different scenario if it were McCaw. The All Blacks, despite their collective experience and abundance of senior leaders, would be lost without their guiding light.

In his seventh season as captain, McCaw might as well stop hiding the halo - everyone knows it's there now. His leadership is natural, composed and inspirational.

These days, all it takes is a look for his team-mates to feel they can clamber back into any contest.

"He just keeps working and when we are under pressure, he is just working harder again," says Cory Jane.

"He's across the issues, no matter what situation the game is in, whether to hold the ball or what not. He always seems calm as well. If someone is giving him a little bit of niggle, he's always calm and he's always trying to get a little bit of information from the refs. I just love playing for that guy - he's huge for us."

What the immediate future holds for Cane is hard to tell. He made such an impressive impact during the June series against Ireland when Read was injured and McCaw shifted to No8 that it seemed unthinkable he wouldn't feature heavily the rest of the year.

But maybe he'll reappear on the end-of-year tour and be let loose against Scotland and Italy. After that, it's blurry again: when France come in June and the Rugby Championship kicks off, the All Blacks won't want to be without McCaw. And that's not just because of hiscaptaincy.

The Boks ran into issues last year when their captain, John Smit, was invaluable as a leader but, really, their second-best hooker behind Bismarck du Plessis. He became an anchor for them by the World Cup - a constant source of media debate and lacking the desired punch and drive to make a genuine impact.

While it's possible such a future may belong to McCaw and the All Blacks, for now, that doesn't seem likely. Whatever pace McCaw may have lost, he's made up for with his stamina and anticipation. He still makes it to about half of all breakdowns first; he is still, usually the team's top tackler both in quantity and quality and his ball-carry yards stand comparison with anyone's.

Beyond the raw stats, there is a sense that McCaw's true value lies in his ability to do precisely the right thing at the right time: whether that be a thunderous hit, a miraculous off-load or a charging run.

His possible successor and back-row companion Read, says: "To lead, you have to be the best player and he certainly is that, but he's taken his captaincy to another level."

There is a long way to go yet but McCaw, far from descending is finding yet more gears and it no longer seems such a long shot that the skipper could go all the way through to 2015. The man is possibly indestructible - a broken foot couldn't slow him down last year - and entirely capable of writing any number of new records in the next few years.

Last night, he won his 110th cap and, while it may once have sounded preposterous, he could easily enough become the first man to reach 150. Just as easily he could captain the All Blacks in 100 tests - he's done it 73 times already and it's not really even going to be a stretch for him to make the century.

It's going to be difficult for everyone to accept that McCaw can keep going for three more years: that he could become the first man to lead a side to consecutive World Cups. It's not the done thing for Kiwis to be so positive about rugby greats.

There has forever been an element of caution; a touch of scepticism that defaults to seeing the glass being half-empty. In the modern era, it has also become automatic in New Zealand to doubt players in their 30s. Turn 30 and that's it - regardless of form, position and history, it's locked in, almost as fact, that a player can't possibly improve. It becomes a waiting game as far as the wider fraternity is concerned: the decline is imminent, it's only a matter of speed.

There are many examples of this not being the case and yet the barrier remains. Brad Thorn was good at 33, world class by 36; Conrad Smith is playing the best rugby of his life as he approaches his 31st birthday. Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock - all better players since reaching 30 and even Daniel Carter might have a case to say the same.

It might take, once again, for McCaw to permanently change attitudes as his influence, his excellence, his leadership, his contribution - they all continue to astound.

- Herald on Sunday

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