In sport and publishing, timing is everything. Richie McCaw’s autobiography hit the bookshops a few days after he became the first player in history to be on the winning side in 100 test matches, and as the consensus builds that he is the greatest-ever All Black. The dwindling band of dissenters might argue that Michael Jones was a better openside flanker and Colin “Pinetree” Meads was, is and always will be the most iconic All Black. Even if Jones in his 1987-88 heyday was superior – a debatable proposition – it’s surely pertinent that McCaw has produced many more great performances in the No 7 jersey.
Two years into his international career, Jones suffered a dreadful knee injury that diminished his extraordinary athleticism and explosiveness. He later reinvented himself as a blindside flanker – an extremely good one too, but not significantly better than the likes of Kel Tremain and Alan Whetton before him, and Jerry Collins and Jerome Kaino since. Longevity doesn’t determine the pecking order, but scale of achievement obviously comes into it. The mountain of runs Sachin Tendulkar has amassed in 190 tests and 463 one-day internationals doesn’t make him a better batsman than Don Bradman: in his 52 tests the Don racked up a set of numbers that puts him in a league of his own. Conversely, many who played with or against Barry Richards in English county cricket regarded him as the finest batsman of his era. But because his career coincided with South Africa’s sporting isolation, Richards played just four tests: in terms of achievement at the highest level he was a skyrocket – brilliant, but short-lived – compared with big guns like Greg Chappell and Vivian Richards.
Meads played 133 times for the All Blacks over 15 years and, like McCaw, was widely regarded as the most influential player in the game. It was a different game then – slower, less skilful, much dirtier – and few were as adept in the dark arts, and accordingly feared, as the King Country farmer. There was a fine line between being uncompromising and being brutal. Some of Meads’s contemporaries felt that, for a player of his stature, he was on the wrong side of it too often. I have heard a long-serving provincial captain, regarded as one of the best players never to have been an All Black, express unbridled disgust over the growth of the Meads legend. McCaw has been labelled a cheat throughout his career. Much of this loose talk is a backhanded compliment, as opponents and their media mouthpieces seek to limit his impact by pressuring officials into over-refereeing him. Some of it reflects a lack of recognition that the complexity (and contradictions) of the tackled ball laws mean legality is what the referee on the day lets you get away with. Few loose forwards get on the referee’s wavelength as quickly as McCaw.
Leadership and relentlessness are what really set McCaw apart: he sets the tone, leads from the front and never stops doing things that make a difference. Statistical analysis by former South African assistant coach Gary Gold reveals that McCaw makes 70 contributions a game (bear in mind the ball is in play for only 35 to 40 minutes), 92% of which are positive. Seeing is believing. Focus on McCaw for a few minutes during a game: you will be amazed at the amount of ground he covers, the amount of work he does and the accuracy and intensity with which he does it. You will also be slightly appalled by the amount of physical punishment he absorbs.