King Richie: Two Strikes And Not Out

There is no denying that witnessing the current All Blacks captain Richie McCaw strut his stuff on the field is a real privilege for all rugby supporters. The record cap winning All Black (AB) who will soon, I have no doubt, eclipse the all-time cap record set by Brian O’Driscoll of 141 (Richie currently on 135), has been a colossus in world rugby for over a decade. This is the man,  who at the age of 20 was selected for an AB touring side to Ireland, Scotland and Argentina and made a man of the match debut against the Irish in Lansdowne Road. The 3 times IRB Player of the Year has won medals and trophies most professionals can only dream about. Earning 135 international caps for the mighty ABs, with astonishingly, only 2 yellow cards to his name.

Two men have been brave enough to brandish a yellow card in the face of McCaw in his international career. Dave Pearson showed yellow in the Millennium Stadium in 2006. After warning McCaw to keep it clean at the breakdown, Pearson sent him packing in the 56th minute for killing the ball. At the Bledisloe Cup in August of this year Roman Poite caused, what the Kiwi’s would consider an international incident, by sin binning McCaw at the AB’s beloved Eden Park. This time the punishment was for hands in the ruck.

Neither of these instances cost the ABs dearly. In 2006, they led 31-3 when McCaw took up his seat on the side-line. Against the Wallabies McCaw galvanized his side despite the sin binning. After sitting out ten minutes early in the first half he would come back to score two second half tries (albeit from piggy backing off the end of two unstoppable driving mauls).

I believe these two relatively un-costly misdemeanors above emphasize the intelligence of the man. To only see yellow twice in such a long and prestigious career reinforces that fact. He is a smart rugby player. He does not get hot-headed  or overly emotional. A cool, calculated thought process follows him around the field. McCaw reacts not only to the opposition but also to the referee, like all accomplished captains should. He was quoted saying about his team, “I would be very frustrated if we did not learn from how the referee is blowing, you’d be an idiot not to change if you’ve been warned,”

But is that all there is to it? Is it possible to remain so squeaky clean through skill and intelligence alone? Is it possible, spending over 9000+ minutes dominating the trenches of open side in international rugby, to escape more frequent reprimand from the officials?

He has gone toe to toe with greats such as George Smith, Thierry Dusautoir and Schalk Burger and seen them all off with an almost blemish free record. Rugby commentators and supporters alike will agree that every good open side must push the boundaries of legality. Some, and Richie is no exception, push through these boundaries into the realm of cheating. But it is not for me or any other onlooker to judge players on how far they push the rules. Officials are tasked with the sole job of upholding the laws. And it is them that must dish out the punishment to said offenders. So how has McCaw not spent longer occupying the naughty seat on the half way line?

Could it just be his immaculate technique and timing? An ability to adhere, just in time, to the referees instructions and sheepishly always disguise his real intent. While he is a world-class operator I do not feel this is only the case. He has an impeccable ability to pounce when opportunity arises for a turnover; of that there is no doubt. He is however, prone to the odd error, like all humans. He often stumbles into the realm of illegality. On countless occasions I have seen him cling to the ball and player on the ground that split second or two after ‘hands off’ has been called. Watched on as he enters from the side of the ruck or falls on one knee as opposed to supporting his full weight. These all are punishable offenses of which McCaw should not be immune from. But still the yellow card remains tucked away. Yes, he learns from the officials who whistle the game but he is not free from sin.

So what is it? What makes his report card nearly flawless? The best explanation is that besides his unquestionable skill level and astute knowledge of the rules, referees offer him a certain degree of leniency. Be it right or wrong it is hard to argue against a certain amount of preferential treatment. Leniency, earned through brilliant play as a younger man or as a result of referees fearing the backlash for disciplining McCaw, it does not matter. Like every other open side before and after him, he breaks the rules and should be dealt with accordingly.

Reputation counts for a great deal. Captaining the world’s best side carries with it an aura and almost royal like status. This can intimidate the hardest nosed officials. The juggernaut that is the ABs and the New Zealand rugby public causes referees to think a split second longer. When said offender raises his head to reveal Richie McCaw staring back at them, that split second decision seems to linger longer in the referees mind. An instinctive decision to show yellow all of a sudden takes on greater significance, when it is the number 7 wearing flanker staring back at them.

Of course, McCaw’s legacy and reputation is cemented in the game. He is an all-time  great. Any leniency offered to him is of course not his fault and merely shows the immense status he has reached in his career. It was not reputation alone, which prevented him receiving a single yellow card between the time of his debut in 2001, and the first time he experienced it in the famous AB jersey. I challenge anyone to blow up an offence and send one of the games true legends packing. It would take quite some bottle. But still, should any of that matter? Rules are rules.

In more recent times, as age has ticked on and the body doesn’t quite move the way it once did, King McCaw must thread the line more finely to remain on top. Operating in a world with younger specimens, like Sean O’Brien and Michael Hooper, must be taking their toll. Surely now more than ever, the naughty step will be occupied more frequently by the great man.

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