How do the All Black captains of the last 50 years rank?
The late Sir Fred Allen had a mantra every time he was asked to compare coaches, "just look at the bloody record". Allen is the only unbeaten All Black coach. I'm going to apply that saying as the basis of my selection of the six best All Black captains from 1970, by which time I was lucky enough to be on press benches and see them all play live.
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Graham Mourie, captain in 19 tests, 1977-82
Win to loss ratio: 78.9%
Openside flanker Mourie was as smart a test captain as we've ever seen. "Goss (Mourie) doesn't say a lot," wing Stu Wilson told me at the time, "but gee, when he talks you listen to every word he says."
New to the job in 1977 (the two matches he led against Argentina in 1976 weren't given test status), he had the confidence, after the All Blacks lost the first test to France in Toulouse, to sit down with coach Jack Gleeson, and plot a radical new approach for the next test in Paris.
"I played my club rugby for Opunake, which was a very small team; in fact, I was just about the biggest player in the side," Mourie would later say. "We used to play against the Okato boys who were all over 100kg. They used to call us 'the little people.' Our response was to play the game in a similar way to how we operated against the French. Three-man scrums, that sort of thing." The All Blacks won the second test, 15-3.
Mourie's iconic legacy? Captaining the first Grand Slam tour of Britain and Ireland in 1978, and the moral stand he took during the 1981 South African tour. "I felt that playing (against an apartheid era Springbok side) would have given tacit support to an unjust regime."
Andy Dalton, captain in 16 tests, 1981-85
Win to loss ratio: 87.5%
Dalton was tough, competitive, and one of the first of the then relatively new breed of hookers who threw to the lineout, rather than a winger. "His throwing," loose forward Lawrie Knight would say, "was perfect. Absolutely perfect."
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Dalton's iconic legacy? Oddly, not getting on the field during the 1987 World Cup but still playing, coach Brian Lochore always swore, a crucial role in the Cup victory.
Injured at the team's first training run, Dalton recovered from the hamstring he injured, but Lochore selected 23-year-old Sean Fitzpatrick for all six games at the tournament. Lochore would say that "Andy was the complete captain except for the 80 minutes they were on the field. David (Kirk) took over the minute they ran out, and Andy took over the minute they came back."
Wayne "Buck" Shelford, captain in 14 tests, 1988-90
Win to loss ratio: 100%
No 8 Shelford is the only unbeaten captain in this group, and it took real leadership from him to maintain that record. In 1988, when he'd taken over the captaincy from David Kirk, who had left New Zealand to study at Oxford University, the All Blacks were down 16-6 at halftime in the second test with the Wallabies in Brisbane.
Ten minutes into the second half, while Australian prop Mark Hartill was leaving the field injured, Shelford gathered his team around. One by one he snapped out a single task to each player. "We were trying to do everything at the same time," Steve McDowell said after the game. "Buck settled it all down." At the final whistle the test was drawn, 19-all.
Iconic legacy? Bring Back Buck. When Shelford was dropped just two tests into the 1990 season, it started a furore that still sees the occasional Kiwi draping a "Bring Back Buck" banner at a sports ground in far flung parts of the world.
How far did the speculation imbed itself into the national psyche? Twenty years after the selection bombshell I was asked by Sir Edmund Hillary if it was true that Shelford was dropped because, after an argument over tactics, he'd punched Grant Fox. I was able to assure our greatest New Zealander it wasn't true, quoting Fox, who has said, "If Buck had ever punched me, I would have been in hospital, and he'd be in jail."
Tana Umaga, captain in 21 tests, 2004-2005
Win to loss ratio: 85.7%
The first Pasifka captain in the All Blacks, Umaga, who had started his career as a wing, took over the leadership as a shrewd, hard-nosed, skilled centre, who in 2005 took the team, in what would be his last year in the jersey, on only the second All Black Grand Slam tour, after a clean sweep of a test series against the Lions at home.
How much respect did coach Graham Henry have for Umaga? Umaga decided to retire at the end of 2005, and would later reveal that Henry "tried to talk me round, to think about getting to the 2007 World Cup. He offered me ideas about managing my workload but I felt that was making too many concessions. I had too much respect for the All Blacks jersey, I wanted time at home and Ted (Henry) accepted those reasons as well."
Umaga's iconic legacy? His fearlessness on the field, and his backbone off it, which he demonstrated by being the All Black captain who finished the tradition of blood and thunder orations by the coach before a test.
On the 2005 tour he had a quiet word with Henry, during which, Henry would wryly report, Umaga said, "Ted, I think those team talks you give before a match are largely a waste of time and inappropriate." Henry dropped them, and there hasn't been a last-minute All Black team talk since.
Richie McCaw, captain in 113 tests, 2004-2015
Win to loss ratio: 90.3%
When you look at the figures, a word often used by McCaw - "crikey" - comes to mind. After subbing a couple of times as captain for Umaga from 2004, McCaw took over in 2006, and led the All Blacks for a staggering 10 years. He grew in the job, coming back from the body blow of losing the 2007 World Cup quarter-final harder-nosed, and more decisive.
Stephen Jones has written some weird stuff in the name of clickbait over the years, but suggesting McCaw wasn't a great captain because anyone, even "my dead grandmother", could have captained the All Blacks to two World Cup successes is possibly the most inane and insulting.
For what it's worth, Jones prefers Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones. It isn't Jones' fault that his place in rugby history amongst non-Welsh fans will forever be as the man who had his nads grabbed by Joe Marler. Jones is a very good lock, whose Welsh team finished fourth at the 2019 World Cup. McCaw's All Blacks won two Cups. You work out what's fair.
McCaw's iconic legacy? Winning the 2011 Cup on one foot. In February of 2011 an X-ray of his right foot had shown a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal, one of the long bones that runs from the ankle to the toes.
An immediate operation improved things, but in a pool game with France seven months later McCaw heard a clunk, and thought, "Shit I hope that was just a kick (on my foot)." From the quarter-finals to the final he'd play with a foot that swelled so much he would have never dared to take his boot off during a game.
So, who is our greatest All Black captain?
Before I started researching for this story I would have gone with Fred Allen's dictum and said it had to be Shelford. Not one loss over three years? In a normal contest that's game, set, and match.
But even in a field of champions McCaw is, in the nicest possible sense, a freak. Over seven years from 1959 Wilson Whineray captained the All Blacks for six seasons. At the time that was, quite rightly, considered a stunning achievement.
But a decade in charge? Winning nine out of 10 games and two World Cups? How could anyone not taking the mickey pick anyone other than Richie McCaw?