‘There’s a chance we’ll meet up with Richie McCaw in Christchurch,’ proffered the PR on our New Zealand press trip. The man from the Sunday Times and I let out a little gasp. We weren’t sports journos but we knew where McCaw stood in the pantheon of all-time greats.
He is the most capped player in rugby union history, a World Cup winner on two occasions and arguably the best open-side flanker there has ever been. He captained the mighty All Blacks 110 times out of his 148 matches, and is probably the most popular living Kiwi. That’s all.
Richie, as everyone knows him, retired from the game in 2015 after lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy at Twickenham. Married to a hockey player, he’s now involved with a helicopter company (he has his pilot’s licence) and has no interest in becoming a coach or TV pundit because ‘I’m not good at getting into all that criticism business’.
What he is brilliant at, however, is answering questions from people like me, who don’t really understand the difference between a ruck and a scrum. And in so doing he embodies all that is best about a sport that will shortly reach fever pitch now the British and Irish Lions have arrived in New Zealand. ‘I don’t miss playing a heap, but nothing will ever replace that feeling when you’re in the dressing room with your mates after giving everything, win or lose,’ Richie said. ‘And there aren’t many sports where you spend 80 minutes bashing the hell out of each other and then go and have a beer together. Respect in rugby is important.’
Richie grew up on the family farm in South Island’s Hakataramea Valley. At the age of 14 he became a boarder at Otago Boys’ High School in Dunedin, where after a couple of years a coach tapped him on the shoulder and said, almost in passing: ‘Just so you know, you’re the best number seven in the country for your age.’
Richie stood there, trying to take it in. ‘It was the moment when becoming an All Black stopped being the dream and became the goal.’ He went on to become head boy of his school and a hero for his country.
What I can’t work out is why here in England, with a population of around 54 million, we can only produce a decent rugby side, while New Zealand, which has fewer than five million, produces a team that habitually sweeps all before it.
‘There are fewer distractions and if you show an interest and have some talent it will be nurtured. No one falls through the net. Then, when you’re playing, expectations are so high that you don’t want to be the one to let everyone down,’ is Richie’s explanation.
He is as excited as any other rugby fan about the Lions tour – and he’s pleased England has improved under Eddie Jones. ‘A strong England has helped build up the atmosphere and no one knows what’s going to happen. But it’s not just about rugby. It’s all the Brits coming down here and having a party. There’s nothing like it. Rugby has certain values and I hope it stays that way.’