Loved by one nation, hated by many others, Richie McCaw is not the sort of player who invites ambivalence. Rarely, maybe never, has one player incited so much frustration in others.

Almost certainly there hasn't been a player who has been subjected to more cheap shots than McCaw and the All Blacks wonder whether other teams are targeting him.
There's an acceptance that a world class openside will be subjected to an intense physical battering. McCaw is there to disrupt momentum as much as he is to create it and he is spectacularly good at the former.

He, more than any of his team-mates, pushes the boundaries of legality. He pops up in unusual places, which creates suspicion and leaves him exposed to all sorts of punishment.

That's the life of a No 7 but there is concern that McCaw is being subjected to something extra; that some teams might be operating a 'shoot on sight' policy where if the chance to inflict specific and reckless damage on McCaw presents itself, they should take it.


"It seems to be a common theme," says All Black coach Steve Hansen in relation to the number of times his skipper is the victim of questionable treatment.

"It is part and parcel that an openside flanker is invariably going to be exposed to more of that sort of stuff. But you have got to question some of that... and ask whether it is happening too often to be coincidental."

No international side would ever admit to condoning foul play and Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer assured the All Blacks that the Dean Greyling yellow card in Dunedin was a random act that would have disciplinary consequences.

But the weight of evidence is there to believe there is something sinister at work. McCaw has decided to take a six-month sabbatical in 2013, meaning he won't be available for the Crusaders for the majority of the Super Rugby competition or the All Blacks in the June tests against France. He's conscious of the pounding he's taken, and when osteoarthritis sets in and it's a chore to buy milk from the dairy, it won't solely be down to his bravery and relentless desire to be in the thick of the action.

Not all of McCaw's physical damage has been self-inflicted and quite an impressive list of names have had their pound of flesh: Greyling, Aurelien Rougerie, Quade Cooper, Lote Tuqiri, Jamie Heaslip, Dannie Rossouw, Schalk Burger, Bob Skinstad and Dylan Hartley have all seen red at some stage and landed cheap blows on the All Black captain.

McCaw has never complained. That's because there is an unwritten code among opensides that they have signed up for this kind of work and all that comes with it.
As former All Black openside flanker Josh Kronfeld says: "You play in a position where you have to be that bloke who is a pain in the arse in terms of trying to destroy the opposition's flow. I can almost guarantee that he's not too bothered by it and Richie's probably had to contend with this sort of stuff since he was young. It's just the position - I think you even get a taste for it."

Cheap shots are almost a sign of endorsement - tangible evidence a No 7 is doing his job well, that's he's frustrating the opposition.

Accusations of cheating also come with the territory and McCaw has had to live with such claims most of his career. Again, if opposition coaches question the legality of McCaw's play, it's only because they fear him.

But while McCaw seems untroubled by the battering he's taken or immune to verbal jibes about the way he plays, All Black management hasn't found it easy to be so forgiving and accepting.

In 2006, then-All Black coach Graham Henry expressed his exasperation at the number of times McCaw, and to a lesser extent Daniel Carter were being played off the ball. The incident that provoked him most was Tuqiri's spear tackle at Eden Park that could have ended in tragedy for McCaw.

"There's been some incidences in international rugby this year that I don't think should be in rugby," he said. "I know it is international rugby at the sharp end of the game... and that game of rugby should be role models to everyone playing the game."

Henry even said he'd take his complaint to the IRB in the hope they could do something to provide more protection for his skipper but it was a threat that earned derision globally and counter accusations of hypocrisy given the litany of carnage inflicted by various All Blacks over the years.

But the All Blacks' less than gentlemanly history can't be held against them in the case of McCaw. Henry's point was valid six years ago, and the past two years in particular have seen things only become worse.

In 2010, McCaw was kneed in the head by Heaslip in the first test of the year - earning the Irish No 8 a red card. In the second Tri Nations game, Rossouw did much the same and earned a yellow. In Hong Kong, the feud with Cooper began when the Wallaby No 10 illegally cleaned out McCaw from a ruck and earned a boot in the knee from the All Black skipper by way of retaliation.

And then the following week at Twickenham, McCaw was on the deck trying to win the ball when England hooker Hartley flew in with a forearm to the chops.

Cooper delivered a knee to McCaw's head in Brisbane last year and then Rougerie, despite the IRB's refusal to investigate, appeared to eye-gouge McCaw late in the World Cup final. Greyling's wild lunge in Dunedin had the air of a man who saw his chance and couldn't resist. McCaw was pinned and Greyling went for him. Like a plane taking off, he almost ran on the spot to ensure he was at maximum speed when he took off.

No wonder the All Blacks question whether all this can be coincidental and no wonder they are just as perplexed by the judicial responses to these incidents.
Cooper was cited but found not guilty - not even of being highly irritating. Hartley wasn't even cited, yet Keven Mealamu was initially handed a four-week ban in the same game for an offence that didn't seem any worse.

Rougerie didn't ever have to front any judicial panel as the IRB were obviously determined not to have the final sullied; it was classic ignore it and it will go away. And Greyling's two-week suspension where he will miss one game hardly fits a crime that could have ended with a broken jaw for McCaw.

As concerned as the All Blacks are, there's not really much they can do, other than encourage the pack not to leave their skipper isolated, trust in the judicial system and, the hardest one of all, trust in the integrity and honesty of the opposition.

- Herald on Sunday, APNZ