It may have been the worst kept secret in rugby, but Richie McCaw’s retirement announcement finally came. And went. Scotty Stevenson watched it all unfold.
He walked into the room in jeans and a sky blue shirt and told the world that the time had come. Richie McCaw, the highest capped test rugby player in history and the first captain to lead a side to consecutive rugby world cups eyeballed the press and said simply, “The reality is I’m going to be hanging up my boots.”
Of course, everyone knew this day was coming, but in typical McCaw fashion he had found a way to trick his brain into thinking this year would not be the last. This is a man who fooled his body into playing a World Cup on a broken foot. Having found the will to play through that kind of pain, it is not inconceivable that he could have truly believed the door was still ajar for another go-round.
“I made no real secret at the start of the year that this year would be my last,” he said. “But deep down I didn’t want to shut the door completely. I thought if I did then the emotion might get to me in a World Cup year. I thought I might spend too much time thinking about lasts, instead of firsts.
“By leaving the door slightly open, it didn’t feel final.”
Before McCaw made his announcement he asked the room to stand in silence to recognise the loss of his former team mate Jonah Lomu, who died suddenly yesterday morning, aged just 40. There was a touching poignancy to that gesture – a gesture made by the best All Black of all time in memory of the most famous.
He recalled his first tour in 2001, getting off the team bus in Ireland and watching a mob of fans running towards him. It was only when they ran straight past that he realised Lomu was standing behind him.
“A lot of people will be hurting for the loss of a great man,” he said.
His last game as an All Black ended in victory, as did his first. In between there were 146 other test matches – 148 in total. He won 131 of them. He led the team 111 times. Each of those three unbelievable numbers stands as a world record.
He knew there were only two ways to finish a world cup: happy or extremely disappointed. He had felt both emotions. In 2003 he was a beginner, in 2007 he was not ready for the pressure, in 2011 he was superhuman, and in 2015 he was the embodiment of the desire within the All Blacks side to achieve something no other team had.
“The last two weeks have given me a chance to reflect and I sit here with no regrets,” he said. “To have that World Cup final memory as my last on the pitch is pretty satisfying. The last thing I wanted to do was limp to the end so sitting here today with my body telling me I could still be playing shows me I have managed to time it right.”
Steve Hansen was the man who discovered this most famous Otago Boys’ High School Alumnus more than a decade and a half ago, and who urged then Canterbury Rugby CEO Steve Tew to sign him. Steve Hansen is now the head coach of the national side. Steve Tew is now the CEO of New Zealand Rugby. It surely is no coincidence that they were the men who set the greatest of all time on his path to professional rugby player.
Steve Hansen said, “He [McCaw] arrived on the scene as a pimply faced schoolboy who was raw but keen to learn. He leaves with less pimples but still with a desire to learn.
“I’ll tell you this: he had a certain skill but he couldn’t catch, couldn’t pass, and couldn’t run.”
Steve Tew said, “I’m glad Steve didn’t give me that information when he was asking me to sign him, otherwise the call would have probably been made a little later than it was”
Steve Hansen let the line wash over him like so many gags before it and added the defining characteristic that he was originally, and perpetually attracted to.
“He would come to me before every season and ask me what he needed to get better at. And then he would go away and work on it.”
And perhaps that’s the thing that made McCaw’s career so extraordinary. He wasn’t a ball runner, or a passer or a catcher when he first began this odyssey. He was a manic and fearless kid who would chase the ball all day long and win turnovers. And he was the best at it. And then he learned how to run and how to pass and how to catch. He did this over a career during which 132 other players received All Blacks caps. More than 20 very good loose forwards came and went while McCaw set up camp inside the number seven jersey.
Tributes came in to the room via a big screen. There was Conrad Smith who talked about the privilege of playing alongside his captain. There was Jean de Villiers, the great South African centre and McCaw’s great friend and rival – a man who had his own finale cruelly ripped from him by a tournament-ending injury at this year’s rugby world cup.
“As a fierce competitor it pains me to say this,” he said. “But you are simply one of the greatest of all time.”
Todd Blackadder spoke of what McCaw meant to the Crusaders and to Canterbury rugby. Andrew Mehrtens took some of the credit for McCaw’s work ethic by suggesting that McCaw spent so long covering for Mehrtens’ renowned lack of tackling that he couldn’t help but become great at it.
McCaw watched these tributes, as uncomfortable as ever with the praise. He fought back the obvious wave of emotion, rested his chin on his gnarled hand and fixed his eyes on some target in the near distance. He was visibly moved by the tribute from de Villiers, and visibly relieved when he got to laugh at Mehrtens.
And then he spoke of the future. He will fly helicopters and gain his commercial pilot’s licence. He will have sponsor commitments that he is sure will keep him busy. He will not be persuaded to play rugby for any kind of foreign cash. This is the kid from Kurow who still likes the fact that Kiwis just treat him as a normal guy. He only rarely craves anonymity.
And above all, he has no regrets.
“I have been hugely privileged to do what I have done for so long,” he said. “I have been in some great teams with some very good men and to be a part of the last few weeks especially has been truly rewarding.”
And then he looked around the room, and thought about one last thing to say. Maybe he was trying to convince himself again. Or maybe he was trying to convince the room. Or maybe – just maybe – he was simply being good old straight up and down, straight down the line Richie McCaw.
“I don’t sit here with any sadness,” he said. “I sit here very happy about what I have done.”
And just like that, Richie McCaw was gone.