His toughness is legendary, but how is the man recently voted the world’s best rugby player of the last decade holding up now?
Richie McCaw had vowed to quit lifting weights once he hung up his boots. He changed his mind. Instead, he told me, he decided to stick with it, to keep his remarkably resilient body healthy after playing test rugby for 15 years. He’s now been retired for five years and looks as good as ever.
Today, as the man considered by many to be the greatest rugby player to have represented New Zealand considers the toll on businesses caused by the coronavirus, he’s just thankful his Christchurch helicopter outfit doesn’t rely solely on tourism for revenue. Getting tourists airborne makes up about a quarter of the operation, he says, with flight training, commercial and agriculture work making up the other parts.
There is already talk of some work coming back on stream, including a potential government contract to eradicate wilding pines. Like many of us, he and his staff are hanging in there.
But, as he says, others are not so lucky – especially in Queenstown where many tourism-focused operators have little chance of survival.
Our connection came via a request for a short interview from a UK rugby publication, whose readers had voted loose forward McCaw, now aged 39 and with a world-record 148 tests behind him, the world’s best player of the last decade.
Once I had completed that assignment, I kept him on the line because I was interested in pursuing a premise that he was not only one of the best but toughest, too – and possibly of all time.
When told of his latest “decade’s best” accolade, the three-time world player of the year (2006, 2009, 2010) gave a modest chuckle and said: “not bad considering I didn’t play for half of it”.
That’s true, but it also highlights what he achieved when he did play. His final game was the World Cup final against Australia in 2015, a test which happens to be his favourite for the manner of the 34-17 victory as much as how he played in it and what it represented for the team and nation. He didn’t want to limp to the finish line and he certainly did not.
He hasn’t laced up his boots since. Flying gliders, planes and helicopters, running a business and becoming a husband and father have taken over since that mild autumnal afternoon at Twickenham when the All Blacks went back to back.
His work ethic is infamous and is perfectly suited to his new sporting interests: running, cycling and kayaking in multisport events which often go for days without stop. Incidentally, it’s also what contributed to the broken foot which captured the attention of the nation if not the world in 2011 before and during the World Cup here; it was a stress fracture caused by the impact of too much running in the Crusaders’ pre-season. It was a fracture which also stressed an expectant public and that wasn’t relieved until the final whistle of that excruciating 8-7 final victory at Eden Park several months later.
That he was voted the world’s best player for what he did between the start of 2010 and the end of 2019 may not get much debate in these parts, even from those who see Dan Carter (World Rugby’s player of the year in 2006, 2012 and 2015), who played alongside McCaw so often in the red and black of Canterbury and the Crusaders too, as the best No. 10 to have played the game. (Could Beauden Barrett, the 2016 and 2017 player of the year, also get a look in?) Either McCaw or Carter was usually a candidate for man of the match but while Carter occasionally had off nights – maybe when his left boot was off target or defences firmly on – McCaw rarely did. Granted, he played in a different position but his default mode was sustained excellence.
Significantly, outside of possibly Colin Meads and Buck Shelford, McCaw must be considered the hardest player to have worn the black jersey, if not any rugby jersey, although Sam Cane, the newly named All Black skipper who broke his neck in 2018, may have future claims.
For McCaw, it wasn’t just the way he could ignore pain and keep going, it was also his competitiveness and the influence he had on games. He was relentless and given the way he put his body through the shredder of endless breakdowns, cleanouts and tackles, it’s a wonder he isn’t broken now.
On the contrary, he says he’s remarkably pain-free, and that’s partly due to staying active. Doing gym work, the one activity he swore he’d quit as soon as he retired, also helps. That’s a minor evolution in itself, albeit a pragmatic one.
“I’m pretty lucky that I can run and do all those things without any issues,” he says. “Touch wood, the knees are pretty good. I do have a hip that niggles away every now and then and even did for 10 years while I was playing. But I think that’s just a bit of wear and tear. There’s nothing where I wake up and go ‘oh, that’s the such and such injury’. I just think that’s a bit of luck. I had enough injuries but when you start hurting surfaces of your knees or really busting up ankle ligaments, that’s where they come back to bite you.
“So far I haven’t had that. But I do think keeping active helps. I have been doing little weight circuits and stuff. I swore I would never do that stuff when I finished but I realise you’ve got to do that. I look at some guys who have got knees that are constantly swollen and I think, ‘Jeez, I was lucky.’”
As a player, he was never enthusiastic about lifting weights. It was just a means to an end – a quaintly old-fashioned attitude that modern players would probably shake their heads at.
“To be honest I would much prefer to go out for a run. It was one of those things when I was a bit younger. I probably got away with not doing too much for a while but then everyone else got bigger and stronger and just as fit and fast and I thought ‘man, I’m going to be left behind here’.
“As you get a bit older you can handle being a bit bigger and stronger so I had to. I certainly wasn’t the strongest player.”
He wasn’t the quickest either. Nor did he have the greatest pair of hands, especially early on. But what he did have was a near supernatural awareness of where the ball was going to be at any moment and a near superhuman willingness to get to it before anyone else. He knew the rules inside out, too.
He also had pain threshold that allowed him push the limits like few others could or can. By the end of that 2011 tournament he wasn’t training due to the discomfort. Coaches Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, whom he feels are the best he has worked with, preferred not to know the extent of it.
Asked whether he had an enhanced ability to ignore pain, McCaw replied: “It’s hard to know. I think to be a top sportsman or All Black you have to deal with certain levels of that if you’re going to survive. There’s a line where it becomes stupid, though. I had a nerve injury at one point and man, it’s hard to put up with that. But if you know what it is and you can rationalize it and know it’s not going to get much worse, then you can carry on.
“When you’re pretty focused on the team and doing what you can for the team, you can actually put it in a box. It doesn’t make it go away but you can deal with it. I think that comes from a bit of experience. I do think some people let it affect their performance. There’s always a level where it will do. It’s a bit like the foot in 2011 – I knew that if it was going to start affecting my performance then I wouldn’t play. But if I could deal with it to the point where I could still do my job, then that’s how you can keep playing.
“Everyone puts up with different things at different times.”
You can’t argue with that, least of all right now.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.