The Crowd Goes Wild’s James McOnie on the underrated man-management and team cultural strengths of Richie McCaw.
As the stats whirled around about Richie McCaw’s incredible feats as an All Black (the most astounding: he played in almost a third of all New Zealand test rugby wins in history!) there was a story that couldn’t be told by numbers.
The phrase “team culture” was again raised in the press conference and McCaw credited coach Steve Hansen with driving the change in culture. Hansen has given McCaw similar credit. Clearly the team culture needed some changing then.
There have always been All Black stories of the Lord of the Flies pecking order and initiations, of how some loners never really fitted in. Basically boarding school on drugs.
The fact McCaw went to boarding school (at Otago Boys’ High) may have helped him usher in a newer, more inclusive team environment where first-year All Blacks could offer opinions without fear of being ridiculed or rucked over in the back of the bus, where egos were kept in check, where everyone was valued and welcome, and where anti-social and bitchy behaviour wasn’t tolerated.
Right now, everyone reading this probably wishes McCaw and Hansen managed their workplace. Well, if you work at Christchurch Helicopters you’re in luck.
The fact McCaw transformed that intimidating environment just shows how new age he really is. Richie McCaw is a hippie. Make no mistake. Everyone needs to feel loved because if they do magic happens.
That magic is back-to-back World Cup wins and any number of other trophies and records.
That supportive culture ensured that no-one could spoil team unity. It allowed Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams to co-exist in perfect harmony, it meant Liam Messam could play just a few minutes in the entire 2015 tournament but lead the celebrations after the final, and it gave rookie Nehe Milner-Skudder the confidence to be amazing from the get-go in a foreign position (I’m talking about right wing rather than fullback, don’t make this dirty).
Of course the biggest change for McCaw’s side came after Wayne Barnes dumped them out of the 2007 World Cup. McCaw took it on the chin. He even managed a smile at the homecoming press conference where every reporter wanted scapegoats to slaughter.
The team noticeably went through changes after that quarterfinal exit. Once Graham Henry and Hansen campaigned hard to keep their jobs, they chilled out a bit. Henry was less schoolmaster and more kindly father figure. Hansen was the gruff but kind uncle who’d nudge the players affectionately. The All Blacks became a family and Richie was the big brother who everyone respected and followed.
With McCaw, the buck always stopped with him. I never once heard him blame anyone for a loss. I never saw him yell at or berate a teammate on the field. Perhaps in the All Blacks you don’t have a reason to do that often but imagine the pressure on this team to win? It’s unreasonable, but there was no complaint from McCaw. He just rose to that challenge even though in the professional era, with everyone sharing information and training the same way, it’s even harder to maintain that spectacular win percentage. One of McCaw’s unsung achievements is helping ensure the All Blacks still haven’t lost to Scotland, Ireland or Argentina ever, and still haven’t been defeated by Wales since 1953.
On a side note, I’ve never seen him get pissed off in a press conference. He really is a remarkable man.
As a player, McCaw was tremendous right till the end. He didn’t possess the kind of greatness that’ll get you out of your chair every five minutes but he had dependability, toughness, the attitude of a champion, humility, oh and tackles and turnovers in abundance. As a Waikato lad, I grew up worshipping openside flanker Duane Monkley for the exact same qualities.
McCaw took things a lot further of course on the global stage, and added longevity, leadership and an aura that very few captains have… Willie John McBride, John Eales, Buck Shelford, Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer spring to mind. That’s a line-up of Jedi Masters right there.
So, with McCaw and five of his trusted lieutenants gone from the All Blacks, will the team culture continue in the same vein? Well if the new leaders — Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Victor Vito and Ben Smith — are anything to go by, the McCaw principles will carry on strong. After all they were nurtured and allowed to flourish in that culture.
There’ll never be another McCaw. Or Carter. Or Nonu. Or Lomu. But new stars will shine bright and New Zealand will fall in love with the next generation and the next captain, just as long as they keep that ego in check and win 90% of the time.