Is Richie McCaw simply too good to be true? On the face of it the answer is yes. No player in the rugby world comes anywhere close when you add up the list of virtues that this extraordinary individual possesses.
The stats speak for themselves of course. The most successful captain in rugby history, the most capped, and the most decorated.
Usually such records are tempered by a darker side: misdeeds on or off the field. Remarkably, McCaw has never put a foot wrong – organisationally, socially or politically.
He has never been anything less than utterly gracious in defeat and he has always exhibited that most precious of Kiwi qualities: personal humility.
To New Zealanders this is a prerequisite of success. It is the formula that keeps John Key out of political danger. It was the essence of New Zealand military leadership in wartime, and it was personified by Edmund Hillary and later in a rugby context by Brian Lochore. McCaw is in effect a re-invention of Lochore and his stunningly high popularity. Rating reflects this.
Cynics often ask whether McCaw’s self-deprecating, ‘aw shucks’ style is natural. If it isn’t he’s managed to maintain a pretty convincing façade for a long time. The fact is, he is exactly what he seems to be, a supremely gifted player whose ability to turn up wherever the opposition finds it least convenient has become a mixture of art and science. He moves so adroitly around the margin between onside and offside that referees are never quite sure whether to penalise him or not.
The referees’ hesitations aren’t shared by opposing players however. Over the years the need to try and take McCaw out of the action has loomed larger and larger. Ever since he started 16 years ago he has been targeted, attacked, stomped, punched, eye-gouged and late tackled by opponents who have sought, premeditated or otherwise, to neutralise him.
Occasionally they have succeeded. There have been at least 15 major incidents and several players, not least Australians, have paid a price for that. Quite a few others have got away with it and there is a prevailing sentiment among players that since the referees won’t stop McCaw they must do it themselves.
To my memory he has only reacted with real anger once, and that was in 2011 when Quade Cooper kneed him viciously in the face and screamed at him in doing so. McCaw leapt to his feet and made as if to wallop Cooper, something a very large proportion of those watching would have thoroughly enjoyed. But he restrained himself, knowing he had too much to lose by losing his rag.
It is now obvious that opposing teams try to rough him up from the beginning. This season alone there have been a number of targeted assaults on him, and there will be plenty more to come in the run-up to the World Cup. McCaw has come to expect nothing else.
The big question is what’s his next act after the World Cup. If New Zealand can miraculously win it then he will obviously retire. He has made it plain he has no desire to try and make some fast twilight time bucks abroad, so that means he could stay on with the Crusaders for a year or two.
Nobody knows what his exit strategy is, or even if he has one. The truth is he probably doesn’t need one; he will of course be eagerly sought by business interests. He already appears – slightly sheepishly – in a variety of TV commercials, and he has made more than enough money to be able to pick and choose what to do next.
Interestingly, he was being talked of as a possible Rhodes scholar a decade or so ago, and as a top-stream student he would probably have been a shoe-in. McCaw playing for Oxford however would have been akin to an international rock star performing at a village pub.
There has been talk of getting him into politics, which would be the worst of all options for a personality like McCaw as the loss of stature and dignity would be immediate and irreversible.
He is a qualified pilot and that too could be an option, but would that be enough for someone who has come to personally embody the New Zealand persona and from whom so much is expected?