Burdon: In Richie McCaw's sabbatical we trust

17:01, Jun 14 2013
Richie McCaw
BETTER THAN EVER: Richie McCaw remains the best and most valuable player in world rugby.

Rugby can be relied on for throwing up innocuous sounding terms which soon take on a controversial bent.

A couple of years ago you couldn't get through an interview with a union chief executive without at least one "going forward".

There was Graham Henry's infamous "rotation" policy ahead of the 2007 World Cup, and now we have the "sabbatical".

The term has its roots in the Bible, describing the way God rested after creating the universe.

It's commonplace in many professions - academia, medicine, accountancy, the law - with an increasing number of businesses offering extended paid or unpaid leave for employees.

They might take a break to write a book or travel, generally to achieve some sort of goal.


So far, so good.

Richie McCaw may be the greatest rugby player New Zealand has seen - supplanting Colin Meads from that lofty perch around the time he lifted the World Cup trophy at Eden Park in 2011 - but he clearly isn't a god.

He's not a lawyer, a doctor, a university professor or an accountant, either. He's a rugby player.

And there are many, a legion perhaps, who believe a rugby player shouldn't be allowed to have a sabbatical clause included in their contract.

It's rubbish, of course.

McCaw is as good at his job as any of the above-mentioned people. He has operated in a highly pressured environment for a lengthy period, but the drain on him will not have been merely mental, it will also have taken a huge physical toll, not just because he is playing a combative, contact sport, but because the position he plays is a particularly bruising one.

The New Zealand rugby market is a small one in commercial terms, and while McCaw obviously won't be living in Struggle St, he could probably do a lot better overseas.

If the ability to offer a sabbatical gives the New Zealand Rugby Union another weapon to fight off the grasping hands of foreign markets, then so be it - with the caveat that that weapon is used sparingly, and only in special cases where the quality of the player makes it worthwhile.

You could argue that McCaw, while a special player, isn't vital to the NZRU cause.

Sam Cane looks like good raw material, there's a fringe of Tanerau Latimer, Matt Todd and the emerging Ardie Savea.

When a quality player like John Hardie does not even enter into most All Black discussions, you know the cupboards are reasonably well-stocked in the openside department.

But none of those guys is McCaw.

New Zealand remains a working-class society, where the professions can be viewed with some suspicion. From that point of view it's no surprise that grassroots rugby has concerns about the game taking on yet another element of corporate life.

Shearers and ditch diggers aren't offered paid leave to go and travel to broaden their minds, or write a book.

Many New Zealanders work themselves down to a nub, sometimes risking their lives, without earning the sort of money which would see them invited to lunch by their bank manager, or to walk the red carpet.

McCaw has also obviously taken a risk that some young tiger will come through in the meantime and wrestle the No 7 jersey off him, but that same risk would have existed if he had been playing.

It's perhaps important to repeat the real intent of a sabbatical, which is to achieve a goal or gain skills which may be taken back to the business to benefit it in the long term.

McCaw has reportedly not just been ironing out the kinks in a body battered and battle scarred after more than a decade of international rugby, he has been working to develop more explosive power in his game.

He hopes to not just get in the sort of physical state that will see him push through to the next World Cup, but be the sort of player who will add even more value to the All Blacks in the future.

Amen to that.

Fairfax Media