The greatest opensides of all time: Richie McCaw
Richie McCaw is the greatest openside flanker of all time, the New Zealand captain won back-to-back World Cups
Major teams: Crusaders, Canterbury
Country: New Zealand
Test span: 2001-15
Test caps: 148 (141 starts)
Test points: 135 (27T)
Even before he’d made a national age-grade team though, Richie McCaw believed he was going to the top. Encouraged by an uncle whilst waiting for food to arrive in a McDonald’s, the teenage McCaw wrote down a list of rugby goals on a napkin. He was to achieve them all, including becoming an All Black three years ahead of schedule in 2001.
It’s strange now to think that his debut in Dublin, aged 20, on an autumn tour caused a furore because McCaw had only played 17 first-class games. The young openside was named Man of the Match that day and went on to break a host of Test records: the most capped player (148), most caps as captain (109), most Test tries for a flanker (27). Of the All Blacks’ 416 Test victories since 1903, he has been on the field for 131 (32%) of them.
It’s impossible to overstate McCaw’s influence on the past decade. An arch turnover merchant with the knack of staying on the right side of referees, he has also set the bar in terms of tackle rate, clearing rucks and carrying ball. His endurance levels are remarkable and his refusal to bow to a foot fracture at RWC 2011 – sustained before the knockout stage even began – was heroic.
“He can hardly walk and how he played today I just don’t know,” said Graham Henry after New Zealand beat France 8-7 in the 2011 World Cup final. “That he got through it was down to his heart and determination. He’s the best leader this country has ever had.”
A three-time IRB Player of the Year, McCaw followed that by lifting the Webb Ellis Cup again in his final match, the defeat of Australia at RWC 2015.
His accomplishments haven’t been the sole reserve of the sports field for he has made a habit of excelling at everything he tries. He once scored 99.4% in a maths exam at Otago Boys High School and other activities include playing the bagpipes and piloting gliders – flying a wave at 20,000 feet is one of his greatest pleasures.
For a player who soared above the rest, it’s only fitting that he now flies helicopters for a living in his capacity as business development manager for Christchurch Helicopters. It will be a long time before we see his like again.