The endless, pristine New Zealand skies are, from Richie McCaw's vantage point, an escape. It is to the air, often filled with gliders near his South Island village of Kurow, that he tends to look for inspiration. The trait runs in the family: his grandfather, Jim, was a fighter pilot in the Second World War, shooting down German V1 missiles as they bore down on London, in perilous exploits that would earn him the Distinguished Flying Cross. So, we shouldn't be too surprised that McCaw, having searched for a suitable postscript to his 148 Tests for the All Blacks, alighted on aviation as his next love after rugby.
He is a commercial helicopter pilot these days, taking tourists on stunning journeys over Christchurch and Lake Hood, a region that still bears the scars of the 2011 earthquake which killed 185 people. His services are much in demand. Rare indeed is the privilege of having as one's guide the most capped international rugby player in history, who won his second World Cup barely a year ago. And any nervous fliers can rest assured, for McCaw is bringing the same perfectionism to his second craft that he applied to his first. In his six exams to acquire his licence, he scored 94 per cent.
"One of the other guys at work went and told everyone about it," he says, laughing.
"I did manage to do that, yeah. Then again, as a few of the boys have said to me, 'If you are flying me around in a helicopter, I'd b----- want you to be getting scores like that'."
It helps that McCaw is a student of rare talent. In his first autobiography, The Real McCaw, he let slip that he was still troubled by a solitary mistake in his sixth-form maths exam, where he was denied a perfect score only by miscalculating a question about a circle and a hexagon. During his time at Lincoln University in Canterbury, where he read agricultural science, he was in the frame for a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, among the most prestigious academic honours in the world. "It was mentioned," he acknowledges, bashfully.
"But you have to take the scholarship before you are 25. Somebody suggested that I should take six months off, to get my degree finished, but I was already an All Black by that point. So, I thought, 'Crikey, that's a big risk'. That somebody even suggested it was a possibility was pretty cool."
Even as an All Black neophyte, in 2002, McCaw took flying lessons, apparently aware that he needed contingencies in his professional life. Obsessive to a fault about the game, he still recognised the attraction of enjoying the serenity of the sky.
"It has been exactly what I needed," he explains.
"I have been all about the rugby, whereas flying gave me something new to think about, a new group of people. I could just go and learn. It gave me a balance, a means of getting away from the bubble."
McCaw, who turns 36 next month, has an eclectic enough portfolio of interests to resist the allure of a return to the field. Beyond his share in Christchurch Helicopters, he holds seven other company directorships, in businesses spanning everything from pilot training to residential care homes. It is a sign of his meticulousness in measuring every financial decision that even his unlikely investment in geriatric care has proved a success. New Zealand's population of over-65s, which hovers above 600,000 out of a total population of 4.6 million, is forecast to rise to 1.1 million by 2031, with shares in aged-care properties ranked as the best-performing in the country. Does McCaw have the Midas touch, or is he just lucky?
"It's a tough one when you're a young fella and start earning some money," he says.
"What do you do with it? I was also similar to a lot of players in that I thought, 'What the hell am I going to do when I retire?', you don't know when you'll finish. It could be tomorrow, or in five years' time. But I was clear in my last couple of years that I needed to have a decent network of people, so that when the time came, I could knock on doors and get advice."
The first time McCaw watched New Zealand as a former All Black was, he concedes, a wrench. But rationality soon washed away the sentiment. For his was a longevity that stretched credulity. Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll, whose record he surpassed, was acclaimed as a freak of nature for his 141 Tests in the centres. For McCaw to reach 148 caps as an openside flanker, a role he once described as being in a "collision zone where 100kg-plus bodies are charging from diverse points of the compass towards a small ovoid focus", bordered on preposterous. By 2013, his body was so battered that head coach Steve Hansen had to plead with him to take a sabbatical.
"When I am watching them getting smashed, I don't really miss it," McCaw says.
"It's the moment when you hear the anthem, that's the stuff you can never replace. That's what you have to remember. Most of the time, I'm happy that I made the right decision," he says.
Besides, the All Blacks' subsequent dominance has confirmed that his legacy is secure. Fiendishly difficult as endings in sport are to script, last autumn's World Cup Final formed as seamless a swansong as any. In his 110th match as captain, McCaw led New Zealand to the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time on foreign soil, taking his bow alongside fellow Test centurions Dan Carter and Keven Mealamu. Throw Conrad Smith in among the retirees, and it seemed like the passing of a generation. Alas for their rivals, the juggernaut just kept flattening everything in its path. A 37-10 victory over Australia last month was the All Blacks' 18th successive win. Against Ireland in Chicago tomorrow, they can extend it to 19.
"Some of the rugby that the boys have played this year has been quite outrageous," he says, chuckling. "You see the skills out there. I just shake my head in disbelief."
Then what, pray, is the secret of this never-ending excellence?
"Well, look at Kieran Read, the captain now, who has 94 caps. It's not as if those who have moved on have been replaced by brand-new guys. From our point of view, if there had been a big hole, it would have been a bit of a slight on us. It's part of the ethos of being an All Black that you leave it to the next guy, to make sure he can perform."
Few taught McCaw about the significance of being an All Black as powerfully as Jonah Lomu, whose death last November, aged 43, is still keenly felt. "I went on the tour in 2001 to Ireland, a huge deal for a new boy," he recalls. "We got off the bus, there were heaps of kids around, and Jonah was the guy they were all after. As a Kiwi, we used to love what he did and how he played, but what people thought of him overseas was quite unreal."
McCaw's reputation is similarly exalted, not that he would admit it. He is the only man to win the world-player-of-the-year award three times, and was heralded by Heyneke Meyer, the former South Africa coach, as "probably the best player that has ever played".
It is to his credit that he wears these accolades without the slightest semblance of airs or graces. The only air McCaw is interested in is above him, where, unburdened by a nation's expectations, he can now fly his helicopter to his heart's content.