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WELLINGTON - Depending on who you listen to, All Blacks captain Richie McCaw is either the greatest rugby player in the world, the greatest cheat, or both.

The International Rugby Board is in no doubt about McCaw's brilliance, naming him the player of the year in 2006 for his "outstanding leadership and inspirational performances".

But South African lock Johann Muller, the stand-in captain when the Springboks lost 6-33 in Christchurch this year, said the All Blacks leader was nothing more than a cheat whom referees were too scared to sin bin.

It was not the first time McCaw's ball-winning tactics in the murky world of the breakdown have been questioned and it won't be the last.

Both the All Blacks and McCaw's Canterbury Crusaders - the most successful team in the history of the Super rugby series - thrive on turnover ball courtesy of the openside flanker's sublime talent for stealing possession.

His ability to tackle, stand and retrieve the ball in one movement have become a source of frustration for opponents, and as a consequence, McCaw frequently finishes a match bloodied and bruised from off-the-ball attention.

McCaw denies he's a cheat and does not like to dwell on the extra attention he receives - "It's just one of those things. Let's leave it out there" - although he pushes the rules as far as possible.

"Before every game I talk to them (the referee) about first of all the breakdown. Some call 'hands off', some call 'ruck formed'.

"I say to them, 'I am going to listen to that as much as possible. I am going to have a go at it until you tell me I can't, and then I will make an effort to get out of the way'.

"As long as I do that, and know what is happening, hopefully it should work pretty well."

Richard Hugh McCaw, with the unlikely and downplayed rugby nickname of "Fluffy", is the total rugby package - an outstanding openside flanker who is rated among the best in the world even by his critics, and a natural leader.

He first played for the All Blacks in 2001 and the following year was voted Newcomer of the Year by the International Rugby Players Association.

McCaw was only 23 when he first captained the All Blacks, against Wales in 2004, and a year later he assumed the mantle permanently when Tana Umaga retired.

As a diplomatic leader he says he is not bothered by the consistant furore he creates.

"It gets a bit tiring after a while but I guess it's just what you expect in the position you play.

"There's always going to be bits and pieces like that. I don't even think about it, to be honest. I just laugh at it and carry on.

"For me, the rules are really clear as to what you're allowed to do and what you're not allowed to do."

But the referees' interpretations of the rules are often not so clear.

Muller was fuming after the Springboks lost to the All Blacks in Christchurch, arguing that the game turned when Pedrie Wannenburg was sin-binned for not releasing the ball while McCaw was only penalised for the same offence.

"It just amazes me that, for exactly that same offence, Richie McCaw wasn't sent off. And if that happened it would have been a totally different game," he said. "The yellow card made the difference.

"If Richie McCaw was wearing a green jersey and had blond hair (Springbok Schalk Burger) or a yellow jersey and dreadlocks (Wallaby George Smith), he would never finish a Test."

Asked if referees were scared of McCaw, Muller said: "It looks like it."

But All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen dismisses his captain's critics saying they become frustrated because they cannot not match the quality No 7.

"It's easy to say Richie's getting away with blue murder. But if you remove the emotion out of it, he's very good at making a tackle, getting to his feet, fighting for the ball, particularly when we've won the tackle," he said.

"He's that quick - he'll make a tackle and get to his feet. Sometimes it's an optical illusion."

But the debate over McCaw even tests the alliegances of New Zealanders.

When he plays for the All Blacks he is a hero to all, but when he plays for the Crusaders he is fair game for anyone outside Canterbury.

A frustrated Wellington Hurricanes prop Neemia Tialata was caught on camera throttling and punching his All Blacks captain at the bottom of a ruck, before a more restrained Jerry Collins hurled the the ball at McCaw's head.

Playing for the Auckland Blues, lock Ali Williams was suspended for six weeks in 2005 for dispensing old-fashioned justice when he found McCaw on the wrong side of a ruck.

Asked later if had learned a lesson, Williams grinned: "Yes, you're not allowed to stamp on Richie."