Richie McCaw: The team player who now stands alone

By Alexander BisleyBBC Sport in New Zealand
Richie McCaw
Richie McCaw led his team to World Cup glory in 2011 despite playing with a stress fracture in his foot

He is the "good Kiwi bloke" who is the "inspirational and uncompromising" captain of the world's greatest rugby team.

And on Saturday morning UK time, Richie McCaw became the most-capped player in Test history when he made his 142nd appearance for world champions New Zealand, breaking the record he jointly held with former Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll.

In perhaps the ultimate team game, flanker McCaw has earned his individual record by being the ultimate team man - the one who leads from the front, the one others want to follow.

"I've never seen a man play through what he plays through. The hits he goes through and injuries he plays with that people don't know about," veteran All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu told BBC Sport.

"You wouldn't be able to tell when you see him running out there, he always looks like Richie when he's in the black jersey, you know? And being a good man; a good Kiwi bloke... Skip's a skip."

Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu
Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu hold the Tri Nations trophy after their triumph in 2006

Former All Blacks winger Rico Gear says it is McCaw's leadership that makes him extraordinary.

"Richie's probably not the most talented rugby player compared to other guys, but certainly what he has well above anybody else - which is why he's the captain - is his ability to lead the guys around," said Gear.

"He's uncompromising and he leads with his actions. His body is on the line and he somehow keeps going. That's inspirational."

Now 34 and a three-time winner of the world player of the year award, two poor Super Rugby seasons had seen some sniping at McCaw, but the lure of being part of the first team to retain the World Cup seems to have given him a new lease of life.

The All Blacks' most successful captain is happy to play down his role in the world champions' ongoing success.

"A lot of your talking and discussing is done before you're on the field, he said. "There are times where you just look at each other and know what you talked about is happening.

"You don't often need to say much, sometimes a look is enough, especially if you've played together a while. You understand the situations and then you know what to do."

World Cup final 2011: McCaw proud to win ugly

McCaw's favourite victory is the 8-7 World Cup final triumph over France in 2011, when a broken foot meant every step he took during the match felt "like stepping on a red-hot lump of coal".

He also highlights the 48-18 second Test win over the British and Irish Lions in Wellington in 2005, when he was Tana Umaga's vice-captain, as one of his most memorable days in an All Black shirt.

All Test careers must come to an end at some point, even those of the greats, and Ardie Savea, the unbeaten 2013 European tour's "apprentice" to McCaw, says it is "surreal" being considered a leading contender - along with Sam Cane - for the captain's number seven jersey after the World Cup.

"Richie's a legend in the game. No-one will ever be a Richie again. What he's done with the seven jersey has raised the bar so high," said Savea.

The 21-year-old raised his formidable arms towards the heavens, adding: "It's a good challenge."

Whoever does succeed McCaw will have to replace "someone special", in the words of outside centre and vice-captain Conrad Smith.

He added: "You look at him and know he's not a guy you're ever going to worry about. His mind's in the right place."

McCaw's fellow Otago Boys' High boarders say he was hard-working back then, hitting the books at his desk till late every night.

His 99.4% for sixth-form maths is seen in his precise calculus between the white chalk lines during games.

Richie McCaw stat attack
Born: 31 December 1980Test debut: v Ireland in November 2001
Height: 6ft 1in (1.87m) Test wins: 124; Losses: 15 Draws: 2 Win %: 89.28
Weight: 16st 12lb (107kg)The Invincibles: In 2013 he led NZ to 14 wins from their 14 Tests
Caps: 141 (27 Test tries)Silverware: 1 World Cup; 10 Tri Nations/Rugby Championship titles

"At my best, I live in that split second of time and space at the breakdown, a collision zone where 100kg-plus bodies are charging from diverse points of the compass towards a small ovoid focus. Success or failure can be measured in microseconds," as McCaw put it in his autobiography 'The Open Side'.

Kieran Crowley, part of the New Zealand squad that won the inaugural World Cup in 1987, was an All Blacks selector for McCaw's first World Cup in 2003.

"Richie is a great leader, he has the charisma that makes players want to follow him and play for him," said Crowley.

"On-field he always leads by example. Off-field his personality is natural and he has a genuine empathy for other people."

McCaw comes from a long line of "good Kiwi blokes" who were also "inspirational and uncompromising" leaders, with Smith naming iconic former All Blacks Colin Meads, Brian Lochore and Ian Kirkpatrick as the current captain's forebears.

During the middle of the challenging 2009 season, after South Africa beat the All Blacks three times in a row, McCaw invoked Lochore and co in a "moment of clarity" at an Auckland camp.

Richie McCaw and Colin Meads
McCaw received the 2001 New Zealand division one player of the year award from Colin Meads

He laid an All Black jersey in front of his men at the Heritage Hotel and said: "There've been some great men who spilt blood for this jersey, made sacrifices. The toughness, ruthlessness, power, pace. The want. That's got to come from within, the inner desire to spill some blood if that's what it takes."

But while McCaw may be tough and ruthless on the pitch, Smith says that off it he remains firmly grounded.

"Whether it's [star fly-half] Dan [Carter] or Richie," Smith said, "they're normal people. That surprises some people.

"They think because they're a superstar they're going to be different, or do things differently, but they're just like anyone else.

"They have their quirky things about them in the same way anyone else does; and you realise they're fragile as well, they have feelings, they'll feel insecurities... they're still human beings."

On Saturday the All Blacks bounced back from last weekend's first loss to Australia for four years as they won the return Test in Auckland to retain the Bledisloe Cup.

Now comes the so far unconquerable challenge - to retain the World Cup.

Is New Zealand's captain confident of retaining the Cup? McCaw is ever crisp: "We're going to have a good crack at it."

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