South Africans are in awe of Richie McCaw

LIAM NAPIER IN JOHANNESBURG
Last updated 05:00 07/10/2012
Richie McCaw World Cup
IAIN MCGREGOR
MORE PLEASE: Richie McCaw holds aloft the Webb Ellis Cup in 2011.

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Richie McCaw is respected and revered in South Africa - and hated.

His cult-figure status is not confined to New Zealand.

Our greatest rugby foes loathe to admit it, but they, too, believe he is superhuman - a cut above most of their legends.

Esteemed figures such as Naas Botha, Danie Craven, Joost van der Westhuizen, Francois Pienaar, John Smit and Frik du Preez were superb Boks. None are of McCaw's stature.

“It hurts to say this, but simply put, possibly the best rugby player that has lived,” said Gary Gold, Springboks forwards coach from 2008-11.

Gold's view is commonly held, but a strong level of animosity towards the inspirational All Blacks captain is also prevalent.

“He has a few detractors here who think he cheats a bit, but which opensides don't?" former All Blacks and Lions coach John Mitchell said.

"I tend to get my pistols up a bit when I hear the cheating calls.

“He's like a good politician. The good ones stay in power.”

McCaw's understanding of rugby's intricacies allows him to exploit the laws and referees. His status as one of the greatest players means he gets away with infringements others could not.

In this arena, Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer feels McCaw lives on the edge better than anyone.

“For the South African public he is a guy they sometimes hate, but it's because he's so professional with the referees he gets away with it,” Meyer explains. “In South Africa if they hate you, you are a cult figure. It shows the respect because they know he is such a great competitor at the breakdown.”

Down the line, when the 31-year-old retires, his place on the pedestal is assured worldwide. But, until then, he will continue to cause outcry.

“I've seen it with guys like Sean Fitzpatrick, once they finish playing the respect is even more and they accommodate those guys, but when they're playing there's a different feeling,” Meyer said.

McCaw's status is reflected in the way the Boks have targeted him - often illegally - over the years. There's not just been one enforcer; many have had a crack, tried to provoke him during a match, take him out altogether.

“Sometimes I don't know how he can walk but he just keeps on going,” Meyer said.

Some staunch South Africans believe McCaw deserves everything he gets.

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Dean Greyling was the latest to use thuggery - the prop's elbow to McCaw's head in Dunedin was a brutal, but not rare, act.

In many respects the impulse to lash out is a badge of honour for the All Blacks captain; recognition that his ability on the floor, work-rate and leadership frustrate the opposition to breaking point.

“I normally had my big friend Bakkies [Botha] so I got him to try to sort him out,” former Bulls captain and Boks centurion Victor Matfield recalls. “If you couldn't sort him out at the breakdown, the chances of winning the game were very tough.

“Although he plays close to the law he doesn't give a lot of penalties away. He's very clever at getting away with things.”

Matfield believes no-one is exempt from admiring McCaw now he has played over 100 tests and won a world cup.

“When he talks to the referees, they listen to him. He can get the referee to make certain calls because of what he's done in his career. He's very influential.”

Those examples illustrate the love-hate relationship South Africans have with McCaw.

While some Boks supporters enjoy seeing him targeted off the ball, a compelling level of respect also exists among those with measured, valued opinions.

Former Boks coach Nick Mallett believes McCaw is the best openside flanker in history, describing him as tireless, courageous and understated.

“It is his captaincy that sets him apart,” Mallett said. “Leading from the front and always setting the example. Modest, he is the perfect New Zealand captain.”

Meyer reckons McCaw's presence is worth 10 to 15 points to any side.

And Gold's remarkable statistics back up those assertions.

After some in-depth analysis, the now Bath director found McCaw often had more than 70 contributions per game - incredible considering the ball is in play for 40 minutes on average. That's almost two contributions per minute and 92 per cent of those were positive.

“If you look at the games South Africa has beaten the All Blacks, not many of those Richie has played. I've never seen him play a bad game,” Meyer said.

“Personally, the thing that impresses me most is the type of person he is. He's always humble in victory and gracious in defeat, although he hasn't lost a lot of test matches.”

In 2006, after the All Blacks played at Loftus Versfeld, Meyer took his son, Vic, to meet McCaw, who spent 10 minutes with the star-struck youngster.

It is an occasion he will never forget.

“My kid is a big Richie McCaw fan,” Meyer said. “After the match he gave his boots to my son. That's the type of thing the public doesn't always see.”

Those boots are now a framed memento.

Some South Africans have an unfavourable perception of the great No 7. But the large majority agree with Kiwis that he is a great player, and person.

- Sunday Star Times

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