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Richie McCaw earns a rest after 2nd Rugby World Cup title

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New Zealand has done its best to lavish honors on Richie McCaw in recognition of one of the greatest All Blacks careers, a contribution which likely ended with New Zealand’s victory over Australia in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday.

But it’s a measure of McCaw’s standing that he has been able to turn down the richest blandishments New Zealand civil society has offered without offending a nation as quick to fault its sportspeople as to praise them.

McCaw was offered and rejected a knighthood after leading New Zealand to victory at the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Had he accepted, and received the ceremonial dubbing with a sword which would have made him Sir Richard McCaw, he would have joined a group of New Zealand rugby knights including Sir Colin Meads, Sir Brian Lochore, Sir Wilson Whineray, Sir John Kirwan, and Sir Graham Henry.

The knighthood offer was renewed when, in August, McCaw overtook Brian O’Driscoll’s record of 141 test appearances to become the most-capped player in rugby history. McCaw again declined with the polite self-deprecation which has maintained his popularity through a 15-year international career.

The knightly connection between McCaw and Meads would have been apposite. Meads was, in his time, New Zealand’s most-capped test player; his 55 tests and 133 games for the All Blacks were milestones thought prodigious and unsurpassable until professionalism made tests almost weekly events.

But, more than anything, Meads – who was voted the international rugby player of the 20th century – was thought to embody, more than any other player of his time, the essential qualities of an All Black. He was rugged, resilient, and fearless – even playing on in a test match with a broken arm. He was modest and reluctant to promote himself above the team, even when by external acclamation he was considered a cut above the rest.

He could seem taciturn when that was admirable. Still, when prevailed upon, he could sup a pint and spin a yarn which might be earthy but would always contain a nugget of simple wisdom.

Meads was of rural stock: He left his farm to travel around the world for the All Blacks. He was a farmer, connected to the land, simple and unpretentious. In that way and so many others, he epitomized the values of New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s when his career was at its zenith. When he played for New Zealand, he did so at his own financial expense.

In all those respects, Meads represented the best of rugby as an amateur sport and of New Zealand society in the middle of the 20th century, which was still rurally based and developing a sense of identity.

It can now be convincingly argued that McCaw has come to represent the essence of modern New Zealand and of the All Blacks’ ethos in the 21st century and in the professional era.

He shares with Meads those qualities of fearlessness and durability and, in many respects, he is just as taciturn; pleasingly untempted by the lure of social media. Far more than personality or charisma, McCaw possesses mana – a term used by New Zealand’s indigenous Maori to describe the reputation or standing a person holds within his own community.

In that respect, McCaw’s career might be faultless – no scandals, no arrests, no reckless relationships with models or pop stars, no intemperate tweets, or forced apologies. Even McCaw’s teammates regard him as a little boring; after rugby his only announced passion is flying – in gliders mostly – which he says he inherited from a grandfather who flew Spitfire fighters in World War II.

“The secret to a long career is to keep wanting to learn,” McCaw said recently.

“Playing well, not to mention leading well, has become an addiction and there has been a bit of luck along the way.”

Many top sportspeople have found it hard to maintain the faith, the confidence, or admiration of the New Zealand public for even a short period. McCaw has done so for 15 years, and his popularity shows no sign of waning as his career comes to an end.

There have been difficult times. He captained the All Blacks when it was beaten by France in the 2007 quarterfinals – New Zealand’s worst-ever World Cup performance. McCaw earned criticism for their inability to change their game plan in the second half of that match or set themselves for a winning dropped goal in a 20-18 defeat.

But he weathered that examination and his leadership of the 2011 champion team, after he played most of that tournament with an excruciating foot injury, hardened his reputation for being tough, dutiful, and uncomplaining.

Fans of other nations might not be as charitable. At best, McCaw is seen by others as a master of the dark arts of the openside flanker, well-versed in the compendium of laws that govern the breakdown, and able to push those laws to their limits. He is unquestionably a player of his time – the openside role has changed continuously throughout rugby’s history and McCaw embodies the skills of the position’s most modern manifestation.

Players of preceding generations might have been more destructive tacklers than McCaw, others like Michael Jones might have been more broadly skilful, but McCaw is among the best of his era as a ball-snaffler and spoiler.

For that reason, classifying McCaw among the greats of All Blacks rugby – coach Steve Hansen called him the greatest All Black on Saturday – is difficult. His longevity, his toughness – he rarely misses a game through injury and he was the first New Zealander to play 100 tests – rate him highly.

He has been world rugby player of the year a record three times.

McCaw has been a key member of All Blacks teams for so long, fans will inevitably be pained by his sudden absence. That might make his retirement wrenching but it’s unlikely to be traumatic.

There are players ready to take up the torch: Sam Cane as New Zealand’s next No. 7, and Kieran Read as its next captain. McCaw might, again, politely shun offers of a knighthood or of a career in politics.

He might even play on for the All Blacks.

“I still don’t want it to end, to be honest,” McCaw said on Saturday. “At the moment I am still part of this team. I am going to enjoy today, and how could you get enough of this?”

He almost certainly will remain what he has been for so long to New Zealand, an eminent figure in a small nation and a man who spent a decade and a half on the international stage without triggering any of the traps of fame or success.

Asked what would be the best-possible coda to his career, McCaw said “I worked hard.”

Guinness Six Nations: Wales equals wins record after Italy scare in Rome

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ROME (AP) — Wales equaled its all-time record for consecutive wins after overcoming a plucky Italy 26-15 in Six Nations rugby on Saturday.

Italy scored the only try of the first half to trail by 12-7 at halftime. Wales didn’t score a try until the 53rd minute and finished with only two. Italy scored a second try, too, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Wales from an 11th successive victory, tying the Welsh record set 109 years ago.

Italy extended its own record streak with a 19th straight defeat in the Six Nations since 2015. The 99-year-old tournament record became theirs outright last weekend in Edinburgh.

Wales’ winning streak started against Italy in the 2018 Six Nations.

Coach Warren Gatland made 11 changes after the fortuitous win over France in Paris last weekend, trying to build experience in a Rugby World Cup year.

That Wales finished with its least points and tries in Rome in six years didn’t worry Gatland, who was far more satisfied with starting the championship with two wins away from home before returning to Cardiff to face title rival England in two weeks.

But he warned, “If we play like that against England it could be embarrassing.”

Stand-in captain Jonathan Davies was frustrated.

“I can’t fault the boys’ effort,” he said. “That accuracy in the final quarter was probably what we lacked. But we came to a difficult place to play rugby and got the result. Italy made things tough for us.”

But a comfortable win at Stadio Olimpico was on the cards as Dan Biggar kicked Wales to a 12-point lead in the first half hour.

Then Italy struck from an attacking lineout as Dean Budd and captain Sergio Parisse surged. Sebastian Negri and David Sisi helped in getting flanker Braam Steyn over the line, and the game descended into the tight contest the Welsh feared.

Tommaso Allan converted Steyn’s try but hit the post with a penalty just before halftime. He nailed a penalty after the break to cut the deficit to two.

Wales sent on regular captain Alun Wyn Jones and finally hit back and pulled away with converted tries by Josh Adams and Owen Watkin to make the result safe with 10 minutes to go.

Italy coach Conor O’Shea rued what he believed to be a missed opportunity.

“We were very close in points for 50 minutes where we were fully in the match,” O’Shea said. “We had an opportunity in the second half but the energy at that time went in their favor.”

Wales flew down the right touch then attacked down the left, where fullback Liam Williams drew the last man to send Adams into the corner for their first try.

Wales thought it scored another 10 minutes later, but Jonathan Davies was adjudged by the TMO to have knocked on.

The second try came from a delicate chip by replacement flyhalf Gareth Anscombe for Watkin to pounce on.

Italy made the scoreline more respectable when Allan exploited a gap and teed up Edoardo Padovani into the right corner.

Right at the end, Wales flanker Thomas Young was denied a try on debut when a forward pass was caught in the buildup.

Italy already looks consigned to a fourth consecutive wooden spoon. Defending champion Ireland arrives in two weeks. But Steyn, who was a standout for Italy, believes any home match is winnable.

“The hardest challenges,” Steyn added, “are the best.”

Guinness Six Nations: England switch from underdog to favorite against France

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Praise can make you weak. Eddie Jones threw that comment at Ireland last week as a warning about living up to expectations.

Those expectations were then shattered by Jones’ England side as they smashed the Irish in Dublin to kick off the Six Nations.

Naturally, praise has been showered on England for producing its best rugby performance since 2012 when it thrashed New Zealand 38-21 at Twickenham.

Having been hailed far and wide for the remarkable all-round triumph, its England’s turn to cope with all of the pats on the back, to switch from underdog to favorite before France turns up on Sunday at Twickenham.

“By Sunday we’ll be at our best,” Jones promises.

To prove all the praise has had no effect won’t be easy, especially when England isn’t in hostile territory but back in the cozy comforts of home. Its victory has enlarged the target on its back, with four rounds to go.

“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” hooker Jamie George says. “We must realize that we can’t just rest on that win, believing that because we’ve produced one good performance we’ll be winning the World Cup. We need to build on this.”

The good news — and bad news — is the next opponent is France.

France should have sunk Wales last week in the rain in Paris, but Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez missed 13 points off the tee, and Yoann Huget and Sebastian Vahaamahina gave away two converted tries. Wales, without really firing a shot, won by five points.

Instead of just replacing injured backs Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard, and prop Uini Atonio, and showing some faith, coach Jacques Brunel has prolonged the turmoil the team can’t escape by tearing it apart and asking new combinations to hit the ground running in a stadium where France hasn’t won in 12 years.

He’s brought Geoffrey Daymourou and Mathieu Bastareaud into the centers, apparently to counter the considerable threat of Manu Tuilagi. They are the only survivors of the backline which beat England last year in Paris. But two more centers are on the wings in Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud. Meanwhile, Huget has been moved to fullback, where the wing hasn’t started for France in almost six years.

Center Romain Ntamack and lock Paul Willemse, who made their debuts against Wales, have been demoted to the reserves.

The French pack was huge and surprisingly mobile against Wales but flanker Yacouba Camara has been given his first cap since the 2018 Six Nations, and lock Felix Lambey and tighthead prop Demba Bamba will make their first starts. Bamba will be marking Mako Vunipola. Of Bamba, Brunel says, “He’s come up against a few good players.” But not Vunipola, who almost subdued the Ireland pack on his own.

If any rescuing is required, France’s reserves offer 25 caps of experience in total. Toulouse prop Dorian Aldegheri and fullback Thomas Ramos are uncapped, and four others have one cap each. Brunel says, “I expect them to bring their enthusiasm late in the game.”

England winger Chris Ashton, who has lost twice to France and never scored against them, expects the Tricolors to be desperate after blowing the Wales game.

“It will be an angry French team,” he says. “They love a reaction.”

Ashton set the Top 14 try-scoring record in his lone season with Toulon in 2016-17, and believes the Top 14 doesn’t prepare the French for test rugby.

“The Top 14 is a slow stop-start game. It’s not anywhere near (test level),” he says. “Maybe that step up shocks them in that first couple of games, but they will get up to speed very quickly.”

If praise can make you weak, then criticism can make you strong. Ashton better hope “very quickly” isn’t on Sunday.