McCaw: conqueror of the pain barrier

FEEL THE PAIN: Richie McCaw goes down injured during the match between the All Blacks and South Africa in Dunedin on September 15.
FEEL THE PAIN: Richie McCaw goes down injured during the match between the All Blacks and South Africa in Dunedin on September 15.

Former England cricket captain Mike Atherton pays tribute to Richie McCaw's 100th test win as an All Black.

Sir Clive Woodward was in no doubt. He called it "a mind-blowing achievement, in anybody's language, in any sport".

Steve Hansen, the New Zealand rugby coach, put some flesh on the bone: "He can go into those dark places that you have to go to, to perform over and over again."

The man Hansen was talking about was sitting a few feet away, head slightly bowed as if in embarrassment, and he was sporting an ugly black eye, bruised and swollen and almost closed.

Mind you, for Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain, a shiner is about the best you can hope for after a match spent in and around the scrum.

Woodward and Hansen were reflecting on McCaw's 100th victory in All Blacks colours, brought up in Soweto by New Zealand's 32-16 win over South Africa this month.

McCaw is just one point in a continuum that stretches back decades and, no doubt, will march on, but even by the standards of New Zealand rugby, and by the standards of the great flankers who went before him, his achievement is incredible: only 12 defeats among 112 apearances, the first man in rugby to achieve such a milestone.

What makes it more staggering is McCaw's position as an openside flanker.

As scavengers for possession in and around the rucks and mauls, they are often faced with 50-50 balls and therefore need to put their bodies on the line with little thought for the consequences.

Injuries in this position are a fact of life, as one look at Sam Warburton's most recent Six Nations campaign would suggest.

The Wales captain missed one half of the Ireland match, the whole of the Scotland and Italy games, and the second half of the grand-slam decider against France, so that he received the trophy one-handed, with one shoulder in a sling.

Some years ago McCaw talked matter-of-factly about the physical nature of his trade, about how he had split each eyebrow up to 30 times and each cheekbone half a dozen times; about how the staple gun - bang, bang - now meant less time off the field going through the laborious process of stitching.

"It's one of the hazards of my position; you learn to deal with it, " he said. But not everyone could.

McCaw's achievements, then, are a good counterpoint to the prevailing notion in sports science that practice and preparation can override everything and, given enough of it, excellence is open to everyone.

Ten thousand hours of practice might make you play a decent cover drive or top-spin lob, but it will not take you into the dark places where McCaw and his ilk go time and again.

Pain is something you cannot prepare for, nor can you know how you will react to it.

How many, for example, could have done what McCaw did during the 2011 World Cup?

In his autobiography, published last week, he talked of how he played through the later stages of the tournament with a broken foot. He refused to allow the foot to be X-rayed because he knew it was broken and contented himself with painkillers.

He refused to tell his coaches the extent of the injury ("I just kept telling them I'd be all right"), and around the rest of the team and the media he would grit his teeth to try to walk normally.

"It's like stepping on a red-hot lump of coal, " he remembered.

He stepped on that coal again and again, against Australia in the semifinals and France in the final.

Mental strength is the holy grail for sports psychologists who work with professional teams.

They reckon it to be, often, the difference between those who succeed and those who do not, between the good and the great, and the great and the immortal.

Academic studies broadly agree on the definition: a natural or developed edge that enables an athlete to cope better with pressure, combined with a willingness to push back the boundaries of stress while maintaining technique and effort.

Some years ago, sports psychologists in English cricket keen to study "mental strength" asked county cricketers who they regarded as the mentally strongest players among them.

Interviews were sought and conducted and the findings published, in the hope that what made a player "tough" could be digested, distilled and spread around.

But for the most physical sports, of which rugby is surely one, there is an extra dimension required. It was not immediately apparent that McCaw was going to be one of the all-time greats.

Not, at least, to Josh Kronfeld, who, before McCaw, was thought to be New Zealand's greatest openside flanker.

When McCaw was given what many thought to be a premature debut, Kronfeld was quoted as saying: "You might as well just give All Black jerseys to everybody."

The notion that some people are just special does not sit well with those who believe that sporting greatness is open to everyone with the time and willingness to have a go.

But not everyone can visit repeatedly the dark places that have taken McCaw from the uncertain beginnings that Kronfeld saw to the pinnacle of his sport. Some sportsmen are born just a little different.

I would wager that McCaw is one of those.

Mike Atherton is now a Times of London correspondent and UK sports columnist of the year.

The Press