Heat goes on Richie McCaw as title hunt starts

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:03 21/02/2014
Richie McCaw
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
READY TO ROLL: Richie McCaw is looking forward to playing a full season with the Crusaders.

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To link Richie McCaw with failure is hardly a popular pastime in New Zealand. He has established himself as one of our greatest rugby players, amassing 124 test caps, been All Blacks captain since 2006 and led them to victory at the 2011 World Cup. Yet for all the accolades heaped on the 33-year-old, he has not been in a Crusaders side that has won a Super Rugby title since 2008. Fairfax Media asks what has to change if the Crusaders are to win their ultimate prize.

Richie McCaw denies he is beyond criticism.

Given everything the flanker has achieved, his loyal supporters have elevated him to a status that hovers somewhere between demigod and cult rugby leader.

So one does wonder how McCaw's coaches and team-mates air grievances they have with this man who receives the odd text from Prime Minister John Key, has been offered (and declined) a knighthood and is probably a millionaire several times over.

If he stuffs up, who has the courage to call him out? McCaw maintains it does happen, that he is not beyond reproach.

"Steve [All Blacks coach Steve Hansen] certainly does that and I hope it would be the exactly the same here at the Crusaders," McCaw states.

"Just because you have been around a while it doesn't mean you know it all, either. And I don't mind that at all. At the All Black level the most powerful thing is that the boys who have been around the longest are pulled up for things that aren't going well or whatever."

Senior Crusaders players such as Andy Ellis and Corey Flynn, says McCaw, fire shots if criticism is warranted.

Flynn, especially, isn't afraid to conceal his feelings but you do wonder if even he would think twice when confronting McCaw.

It's no secret Hansen and McCaw are tight; they first met when McCaw began playing for Canterbury in 2000. But if the player suddenly lost form there is little doubt his old mate would give him the chop.

Hansen, who got married near Christchurch last month, didn't ask his captain to attend his wedding.

"No, he didn't. He didn't invite any of the boys," McCaw noted. "He said he couldn't invite one and not the others. I think most of the management went."

Which brings us to the Crusaders and how McCaw can help them win their first title under coach Todd Blackadder.

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When the Crusaders last won the Super Rugby crown McCaw was skipper under former boss Robbie Deans. Nowadays Kieran Read is captain, although McCaw leads the team tonight because the No 8 is being rested.

The reality is that McCaw's input over the past three seasons has been compromised. Last year was a writeoff because of his sabbatical and his 2011 and 2012 campaigns were disrupted by a foot injury.

Blackadder appears to have done all he can to help get McCaw into top gear; by removing the captaincy he exonerated him from a job that may have become more onerous than a privilege.

The unspoken message seemed to be that McCaw was struggling to get excited by Super Rugby and the management, knowing their chances of grabbing the crown were much greater if he was highly motivated, wanted to do all they could to help.

Given all his success with the All Blacks, does it annoy him that the Crusaders have never won the big prize in the last five years?

"It does a bit. The frustrating thing is we have been in the hunt but we haven't been firing when it counts. If we are realistic we probably weren't really playing well enough to give it a tilt; bar, perhaps, in 2011 when there were all sorts of circumstances. We did well that year.

"We have stumbled into the playoffs, rather than being there and ready to go. I think the times we have won it, you get there and feel right on top of your game and take anyone on."

Essentially, that means finishing in the top two overall, earning a bye in the quarterfinal round and hosting the semifinal.

Although he doubts he will play beyond next year's World Cup, McCaw feels he's in top nick and states his running times have improved.

"People say you lose the art of pace but I am actually quite a bit quicker than when I started playing professional rugby (in 2001), which is kind of interesting.

"Sometimes when running I do imagine the guy I am marking or the team we are playing are five yards ahead and they haven't given up. You do play mind games with yourself. And I know that if I haven't done something properly I get really angry with myself."

Some ex-players have spoken about how they struggled with the monotony of touring, of trundling through hotels and airports and to trainings. McCaw believes there is an art to relaxing on tour and notes the backroom rugby duties absorb a chunk of his time.

"I like to keep learning, keep the brain active. That's why I like the flying thing, I did my commercial exams last year to keep things ticking over.

"I do a bit of reading, I wouldn't say I do it more than anyone else. You get really good at doing bugger all on tour and people say you should do this and you should do that, but a lot of the time you are just focusing on getting right for Saturday.

"You have to learn how to switch on and off. I guess you never take for granted what you are doing, doing things other people are not doing. It is pretty cool. You are in a pretty privileged position really."

- Fairfax Media

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