McCaw: 'You don't get to play game forever'
For 65 minutes at AMI Stadium on Saturday night Richie McCaw had the best seat in the house for a performance that may just have instilled the Crusaders as Super Rugby title favourites.
Certainly after their 38-9 demolition of the Queensland Reds in a one-sided quarter-final, the seven-time champions demonstrated palpably that they possess the hunger, the physical edge and, most importantly, the form to end a five-year title drought in red and black country.
The All Blacks captain played the last 15 minutes off the bench in his first appearance at this level in nearly eight months, and even had a hand in his team's fourth try as they finished a dominant performance in some style.
But with starting openside Matt Todd producing a strong display before making way for McCaw, the test veteran won't return to starting duty for Saturday night's semifinal in Hamilton.
Coach Todd Blackadder made it even clearer by suggesting he won't be "making change for change's sake" after his starting XV produced the goods so emphatically. He also praised the effort of starting No 7 Matt Todd who had a strong game before making way for McCaw.
McCaw indicated after just his second outing of the year that he would be content to continue in the impact role.
"It might be a bit tough, mightn't it," he said of prospects of breaking into the starting XV for the semi. "To be honest I'm just happy to be given a shot to have a run round. I'll hope for the best next week, but the boys are going good."
The veteran of 116 tests for the All Blacks admitted the Crusaders would be hard to peg back in this sort of form - they have now won five straight - but offered a qualifier in terms of what Saturday night meant.
"That's the big trick of sport isn't it, being able to back those performances up. You do that by preparing well. If we can produce something like that next week we'll be pretty happy."
McCaw said his long spell on his much-needed sabbatical had achieved exactly what it had been intended for.
"I was pretty nervous today turning up, and there was just an excitement about getting out on the field. That's the way rugby should be," he said.
"I don't think it had disappeared, but certainly today reminded me why I do it and when you see the boys running round like that ... you don't get to play this game forever, and you want to make the most of every time you get out there.
"That becomes pretty evident when you sit and watch for a while."
The great man also offered a telling reflection of the motivation that's fuelling this Crusaders group as they make a remarkable 12th consecutive semifinal appearance, and a 15th in 18 years of the competition.
"A lot of the boys have been in this situation the last couple of years and come up short and it would be pretty disappointing to get this far again and not put our best performance out there.
"There will be four teams now all thinking that same thing, and it comes down to the guys who can put it out there. We've got to be hungry and if we can prepare like we did this week and put a performance out there it's going take a good team to match that."
It also wasn't lost on McCaw that so many of his All Black colleagues - most notably Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Wyatt Crockett and Dan Carter - produced top-quality performances to set the tone for the red and blacks.
"That's the key. The guys who haven't played international footy just follow on and perform like that because they see it coming from the guys who have been there and done that. Guys like DC, Kieran, Wyatt and Sam all had big games and have been playing pretty well lately.
"That's what you expect from your top players and when you've got them all doing that you sort of feed off each other."
McCaw highlighted his team's dominance in the contact area as the facet of the Crusaders game that impressed him most.
"We really stopped their go-forward there and when we were carrying we made the advantage line most times. That's the key to rugby. When they were struggling to get anywhere they had to kick it and gave us chances."
And his own fitness after so long out of the game?
"There was a fair bit of running there at the end and I was blowing a bit, but I don't feel too bad considering. Having had that bit of time out there along with last week, hopefully I'll be a lot better for it."