WELLINGTON, NEWZEALAND, August 24 – Richie McCaw carries the weight of a nation on his broad shoulders as New Zealand looks to the inspirational All Blacks captain to end a 24-year World Cup drought.
The three-times world player of the year — no one else has won it more than once — is treated with almost divine reverence in his rugby-obsessed homeland, where the media refer to him as “Captain Fantastic”.
Opposition players may brand McCaw a “cheat” for his domination of the murky breakdown area and claim he receives favourable treatment from referees, but to New Zealanders he can do no wrong.
But that is conditional on him leading the All Blacks to World Cup success in the final on October 23 for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 1987.
When the All Blacks were knocked out of the 2007 World Cup — the fifth tournament in a row where they had started as favourites and failed to deliver — McCaw was briefly castigated in the media then quickly forgiven.
But whether there will be forgiveness this time is another matter.
Prime Minister John Key joked that the mood of the nation is such McCaw will be either knighted or Tasered depending on the World Cup outcome.
The awards bestowed on McCaw are testament to how he has ruled the number seven slot since he burst on to the Test arena as a 20-year-old in 2001.
There are also marks on his body that are testament to how he is often targetted for physical excess in the dark recesses of the breakdown area.
He says he does not get too concerned about off-the-ball attention because “if you go out there chasing something like that, you can forget about what you are going to do.”
Nor is he fussed by the “McCaw cheats” allegation which is regularly raised, describing it as “water of a duck’s back” although he admits to pushing the boundaries early in a match to see what he can get away with.
“Obviously if you’re doing your job you’re going to frustrate opposing teams,” says McCaw.
“I know sometimes we get frustrated by good sevens we play against. It’s just one of those things – I guess the joys of being in that position are that you get a bit of attention.”
Now aged 30 and heading into his third World Cup — where he is on track to become the first All Black to play 100 Tests — McCaw is proud the All Blacks have maintained their number one status in non-Cup years.
“This year will have its challenges but I’d hate to be number three or number four and think it’s still all right to win the World Cup. That’s not the way Kiwis operate.”
As New Zealand’s rugby royalty, McCaw’s lifestyle regularly fills the society pages and always with reference to how the modest leader puts his country and his sport first.
He turned down an invitation to the wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton saying he wanted to focus on the Super 15 rugby competition.
He turned down lucrative offers to play for European clubs saying he would rather play in New Zealand.
He was the strong and determined frontman for television commercials inspiring people in Christchurch following the devastating earthquakes which wrecked his home city this year.
As a flying enthusiast and licensed pilot he was able to pull enough strings to get a 66-year-old DC3 out of an aviation museum to fly his Canterbury Crusaders teammates to a match when an ash cloud from Chile’s Puyehue volcano had grounded more modern commercial aircraft.
But missing from the bagpipe-playing, All Blacks skipper’s C.V. is the Rugby World Cup and even those closest to him, his parents, are not 100 percent sure he can do it this time.
Donald and Margaret McCaw told The Press newspaper recently they learnt their lesson in 2007 when they bought tickets all the way to the final and the All Blacks were bundled out two games early.
This time “we’re going to all the All Blacks’ pool games and the quarterfinal, but we’ll just wait and see for the rest,” Donald McCaw said.