Is Richie McCaw the greatest rugby player ever?

sheek Roar Guru

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New Zealand captain Richie McCaw (left) and coach Graham Henry hold the Rugby World Cup. AAP/NZN Image/SNPA, David Rowland

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Champion All Blanks flanker and captain Richie McCaw might just be the greatest rugby player in history.

McCaw recently played in his 100th test win. Yes, that’s right – 100th test win. That’s not 100th test appearance, but 100th test win.

To provide the literary equivalent of a pause while readers pondered this would require me to leave at least half a page blank. But of course that’s impractical. But consider this briefly, all the same.

McCaw, quite incredibly, has achieved his 100 test wins out of an overall 112 tests played. That’s a winning ratio percentage (WRP) of a staggering 89.28%. In other words, he has been on the winning side in 9 out of every 10 tests he has played. Nine out of EVERY 10 tests.

To put this in context, the Wallabies won 9 out of 10 tests in 1991 on their way to winning the World Cup. But they haven’t been able to do this consistently year-in and year-out. McCaw has.

There are only 21 players throughout the history of the game who have reached the coveted 100 test appearances, with fellow All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu set to join this august group against the Wallabies in Brisbane this Saturday as the 22nd centurion.

Of these players, the next most wins is by George Gregan with 93 out of 139 tests played (67.62% WRP), followed by Jason Leonard (89 out of 119, 75.63% WRP).

Since McCaw intends to continue playing until the 2015 World Cup, injuries permitting, he is likely to set a record for most winning tests that will stand for a very long time.

Whoever eventually beats his record, if ever, will most definitely be very, very tired! To put McCaw’s WRP in ever-more perspective, the next best WRP among the centurions is Mils Muliana with 84% in an even 100 tests. However, Mealamu’s current WRP is 85.85%.

Of all the players who have appeared in over 50 test matches, only one player has a superior WRP, and only just. That man is yet another All Black – centre Conrad Smith – with 56 wins from 62 tests and a WRP of 90.32%.

If there’s any doubt that NZ is consistently the best rugby team on the planet, then these stats certainly bear that out.

Richie McCaw is no saint and I like that about him. I like my heroes to be flawed diamonds, humans, just like the rest of us.

Even so, McCaw appears to be not only respected by his peers, but liked as well. While it seems he is also revered by the younger generation, as it should be. McCaw is the kind of guy you would like to have as a mate. At least that’s the perception.

McCaw has been given a great back-handed compliment by Aussie rugby fans who have labelled him a serial cheat.

There is a humorous irony in this, as any flanker worth his salt, especially an open-side flanker, must be willing to play on the edge of the law. It comes with the territory. If you’re not willing to play on the edge and occasionally over the edge, then find a less contentious position to play, like er, winger.

Some things are in the DNA of every position. Scrumhalfs yap incessantly, wingers can’t catch, props don’t have necks and flankers cheat. That’s the way it is!

For a long time I was unwilling to concede that McCaw was a superior player to the superbly athletic Michael Jones, but McCaw eventually wore me down, in the same way he wears down opposition flankers, flyhalfs and the referees as well! While I think Jones remains the most perfect rugby athlete I’ve seen, McCaw is probably the best-ever rugby player of all time.

Richard Hugh McCaw was born on the last day of 1980 (which the superstitious claim is a good omen). He came from a family steeped in distinction. His grandfather was a fighter pilot during WW2, credited with shooting down 20 V I missile rockets in the last year of the war. McCaw developed a love of flying from his grandfather and is a qualified pilot.

McCaw made his test debut late in 2001 against Ireland. He was embroiled in controversy early in his career when he wrestled a South African spectator, who had come onto the pitch in Durban to harass Irish ref David McHugh, to the ground in 2002.

As mentioned earlier, McCaw is far from perfect. His captaincy during the World Cup quarter-final against France in 2007 was a low point, when he along with his team mates, appeared to be bereft of ideas and they subsequently lost.

But he has learnt from his mistakes to become a clever and inspirational leader. During the 2011 World Cup tournament, won by the All Blacks, McCaw inspired his team mates and the nation, playing on virtually one leg after suffering a debilitating ankle injury.

I have been following rugby for about 45 years. Richie McCaw is the best open-side flanker I’ve seen in that time, while his phenomenal win-loss record alone suggests he might also be the best player in any position in history.

As for best captain, I will reserve judgement for the time being. But it’s fair to say he’s up there among the best leaders.

> Sheek’s writing: Sheekabout.com.au

I used to think I was a pretty good rugby lock, but now realise I was deluded. My nickname is a truncation of my surname, so I'm not Arabic! However, sometimes I imagine myself as a Beau Geste in the French Foreign Legion, fighting evil, righting wrongs, promoting good and rescuing damsels in distress.

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