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.”