Rugby: Is the end nigh?

Richie McCaw
Richie McCaw
He is our captain, and already an All Blacks great. When he retires, he may be considered the greatest of all. But Richie McCaw is not getting any younger. He is in the middle of a long break, and it is impossible to say whether his motivation to continue will be as strong when he returns. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn ponders the McCaw issue.

Those with Sky Television may have caught the documentary The Weight of a Nation recently.

It documents the path of the All Blacks in winning the Rugby World Cup in their own country.

It is not a bad waste of two hours about something that has received more coverage than a Royal wedding.

One thing that came through was the impact of captain Richie McCaw.

Former All Blacks coach Graham Henry says without his skipper, the side probably would not have won the Webb Ellis Cup.

Big call. And that leads to the question: Is McCaw almost undroppable now? Has he got to the stage where he is simply irreplaceable? Just seen as too good, and too much of an icon, by too many people, to ever be shown the door, until he decides to walk into the sunset on his own terms? Before anyone gets up in arms, bear with me.

There is no suggestion McCaw is over the hill at the moment. He has just won the player of the year award and was one of the All Blacks' best, if not the best, this season.

He has developed into a once-in-a-generation player, perhaps the greatest All Black in history.

But Father Time stops for no man.

One just has to look at Indian cricket for an example of the pickle in which New Zealand rugby could get itself.

Indian master batsman Sachin Tendulkar is 40 in April. He is a great batsman but for many, that statement should be in past tense.

In 14 test innings this year, his highest score has been 80, and he has only one other 50. He averaged less than 19 against England in the recent series, which India lost.

Many are calling for Tendulkar to go. But he is still worshipped in India and appears to be calling the tune on his retirement.

The Indian cricket selectors seem afraid to drop him. It is all well and good for Tendulkar but when he is not performing and neither is the team, how long can he stay in the side? Another great cricketer, former Australian captain Ricky Ponting, heard the death knell ringing and jumped before he was pushed, going out in a losing effort against South Africa.

Ponting was a great cricketer but probably held on a year or two too long.

Let's make it clear: McCaw is nowhere near that territory yet. He is still far and away the best No7 in the country and the best captain of our national side.

But he is about to take six months off and it is going to be interesting to see how he returns from that break.

He may be Captain Marvellous but he is still human.

McCaw has been playing top-level rugby for more than 12 years. His body and his brain know nothing different.

Perhaps, when he takes some time away from the game, he may find something else that tickles his fancy. Flying gliders may become even more of an attraction. Or he may find that special someone.

After six months, he may come back and find the motivation to keep hitting the rucks and making the tackles is not quite there. Soaring high above Omarama may be more of an attraction.

Also, what happens if he comes back and leads the All Blacks to three straight losses? Or drops the ball three times in a row and gets totally out-played by an opponent? Will he ever get dumped by the coach if he just does not perform? Or could he switch to the blindside flank role and leave the likes of Sam Cane and Matt Todd to fight for the No 7 jersey? Going back to that documentary, the emotion that poured into the World Cup victory was plain to see.

Can McCaw go to that well again, and lead the All Blacks to victory in 2015? Go right to the limit, as he says, in a bid to hold up that trophy again? Or can that ability only be harnessed once in a lifetime? No team has ever defended the World Cup. One of the biggest reasons is the defending team does exactly that. It defends. It does not renew itself.

Can McCaw's nearly 35-year-old body by 2015 be able to defend the cup in a foreign country?And will he even be there, through his own decision, or others?

Something to think about.

Your say
Is Richie McCaw undroppable? Will he last until the next Rugby World Cup? Readers are invited to email with their thoughts. A selection of the best comments may be published.

So Richie's the best

Trev, Happy New Year.

I was going to leave it where you finished as in some respects I agree with you that there is not much point comparing players from different generations. But I may have a different reason not to compare them because I believe we are comparing chalk with cheese. Today's warriors are so much bigger and faster than yesterday's stars.

I have no argument with Terry McLean's description of Cullen. Cullen was a freak and played unbelievable rugby at his best. He was all Terry Mclean said. But that was then, playing against the then opposition, not now.

If you compare Colin Meads with the current player most similar in style, Brad Thorn. Pinetree was 6ft 3ins and weighed around 16 stone. Brad is 6ft 5ins and weighs 18 and a half stone. Pinetree was the greatest of his generation but his best in the 1960's would not do it in 2012. And I'm saying that as a matter of fact, not to in any way diminish the great players of the past. It's like comparing a car of the 60's with a car of 2012.

It's like how Michael Phelps at his best would beat Mark Spitz at his best.

Unfortunately today's stars are just bigger, faster and stronger, so yes, there is no comparison with the greats of years ago. So in determining the "best ever" we have to look at current players or those of the very recent past.

'Best ever'


The ex All Black names I gave were only a few examples of those I considered to be brilliant players, so you have misinterpreted my words. It's all a pointless argument to make comparisons between sportspeople from different eras, as is the original statement that McCaw is the "best ever".

Incidentally, I do not think of Christian Cullen as a part-time All Black. 58 test matches in 7 years with 52 tries is not a "part-time" record! As Sir Terry McLean said,"The best attacking fullback to have ever played the game". Only to be lost from NZ because of the worst All Black coach in our history!

The best ever

Trev: So you would consider our best ever AB to be selected from Mehrtens, Cullen, Jones, Kronfeld and Meads? All were great players, of course, but played rugby part time, compared to the fulltime players these days.
I'm personally not sure how parttime players of yesteryear could be as fit, strong, fast and have the size and stamina of many of today's fulltime players but I'll be guided by others.
And you believe our best captain comes from Whineray, Hobbs and Norton.
Would you like to nominate your best player and captain and perhaps Steve Hepburn could compare your selections with Richie McCaw using specific performances as the guide.

The best ever?

Colvin: Using your logic, McCaw is no longer "the best" Captain or All Black since he is now neither of these. With the changes in rugby to a smash and grab spectacle, forwards are now much bulkier with muscle and with that, are actually slower in running. McCaw could never be as fast as a Kronfeld or a Michael Jones around the paddock. McCaw is tough and resilient, but his body is now paying for playing so many bash and crash games which are today's "rugby". I do not deny that McCaw is a very good player, but the best ever? No way.    

I think he is

I suppose it's understandable that many people would say the best of the current players would be the best ever.

If you look at athletics or swimming or any other sport where world records are established, the person who holds the current world record is probably the best ever. Particularly if that person held the Olympic gold as that would mean he or she could win under pressure from his or her immediate competitors.

As most world records in sports are held by current sports stars it follows that these world record holders would beat all those who went before them. Wouldn't that make them the best ever? Peter Snell can't be the best miler ever because his best time would get him nowhere these days. He was the best ever at the time of his world record and gold medals.

That same logic must apply to sports like rugby. Apart from that logic though, Richie's winning records as both player and captain far exceed any other player that has gone before him. So yes, based on performance, Richie probably is the best ever.

McCaw the best? No way!

McCaw the best All Black and Captain ever? Squire Hepburn has got to be joking. Although at risk of being called heretical, McCaw is a long way from either slot. How does Hepburn make such a judgement? "Best All Black ever" ignores the class of Mehrtens, Cullen, Jones, Kronfeld, Meads and many others."Best Captain" ignores Whineray, Hobbs and Norton. I do think that Hepburn is just flying a kite, and obviously is too young to have seen the many "great" players and captains from past All Blacks.