To mark 100 days to go to Rugby World Cup 2023, tournament organisers caught up with the only player to captain his country to two titles.
Inductee number 143, Richie McCaw is kept in great company in the virtual World Rugby Hall of Fame by fellow legends of the game.
However, one thing stands him apart from the rest – he is the only men’s player to win two Rugby World Cups as captain.
One of the best, if not the best, flankers to ever play the game, McCaw achieved the unique double in back-to-back tournaments in 2011 and 2015 following two very different wins in the finals against France and Australia.
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Talking to World Rugby while in London as part of the New Zealand delegation invited to attend King Charles III’s coronation, the memories of those encounters – that nerve-racking 8-7 win against France on home soil and the first all-Oceania Rugby World Cup final at Twickenham four years later – came flooding back to rugby’s own version of royalty.
The Twickenham final was McCaw’s 148th and final appearance in the All Blacks jersey and, fittingly for a player who enjoyed a stellar 14-year test career, it ended in the highest of highs with a 34-17 win against Australia.
A final that had everything
“You knew finishing at a World Cup was either going to be extremely happy or extremely disappointing, no middle ground. It was a great way to sign off,” the three-time World Rugby Player of the Year (2006, 2009 and 2010) recalled.
“The final had a bit of everything. I think for the first half we played outstanding rugby and, again, like early on in the 2011 final against France, the scoreboard didn’t quite reflect how on top we were. But then we scored early in the second half and I felt this could really go our way.
“All credit to the Aussies, they hung in there, and we had a yellow card, and all of a sudden it was back to, ‘this could go either way’.
“Towards the end, once we got the game under control again, rather than praying just for it to finish like in 2011, I was enjoying the moment because it was fun and it had quite a different feel to four years earlier. I remember thinking at the end of that 2015 tournament, ‘why would you ever want this to stop?’”
At that stage, McCaw was 34 years of age and had put his body through the mill so there were no serious thoughts about putting his retirement plans on hold.
“The reality was it was never going to be the same after that because people were moving on and you just sort of know that all the things you need to do to get out on the field and play for the All Blacks at a World Cup involves a lot of stuff that was becoming harder and harder,” he said.
“The feeling when you pull that jersey on before you run out, when you hear the crowd when you run out and afterwards, when you have got the job done and you’re sitting in the changing room, those are the bits I really miss.
“But as soon as that first whistle goes and you see the first big tackle you go, ‘ooh, I am quite happy where I am these days!’”
McCaw will be over in Paris for the eagerly-awaited opening match of Rugby World Cup 2023 between the hosts and the All Blacks and will return for the latter stages of a tournament that he expects to have had more than its fair share of twists and turns.
A tournament full of surprises
In each of the last three tournaments, there have been notable shock results. In 2011, Tongan fans painted the town red after they took the scalp of France in Wellington, but that was nothing compared to Japan’s victory – their first at a Rugby World Cup in 24 years – against South Africa at England 2015. In 2019, Uruguay defied most predictions and did a job on much-fancied Fiji.
McCaw expects the trend to continue, in one-off matches at least.
“When you look at the top 10 in the rankings, results have shown that the teams ranked seven, eight and nine have got the ability to knock over one of the big guys, once. But to go on and win it, you need to do that three weeks in a row and I am not sure some of those teams have got the ability to do that,” he reasoned.
“The good thing is those teams all could get into a quarter-final and cause some real carnage. And if you do get a couple of results like that it might open the door for someone else to have a bit of a run and get more belief that they can actually do it. I think that’s what’s made the lead-up to this tournament so interesting.”
As things stand, Ireland and France are the top two teams in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini and that could well be the case when the tournament kicks off on 8 September.
Twenty years on from England lifting the Webb Ellis Cup, there has never been a better chance for another team from the northern hemisphere to add their name to the roster of winners.
Ireland followed an historic 2-1 series win over the All Blacks by matching France’s Six Nations Grand Slam from the year before and will be hugely disappointed if they fail to make it past the quarter-finals for the first time.
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Similarly, France need to deliver on their promise and rid themselves of the bridesmaid tag that comes with three losing appearances in Rugby World Cup finals.
“I’m really looking forward to it, for a few reasons,” said McCaw.
“Putting aside my allegiances for wanting the All Blacks to do well, I think it is pretty wide open as to who might win.
“You are not too sure what might happen. So there is that side of it and, I guess from a New Zealand point of view, in the past you have sort of always knew that if they can put it together they can go and get the job done, whereas after the last year you sort of go, ‘jeepers, there is going to have to be some improvements to put the team in the right spot’.
“I guess from a northern hemisphere point of view, Ireland have set the pace in the Six Nations and the French aren’t that far behind, so it makes it pretty intriguing.
“There is no doubt that people consider the French and the Irish have got a pretty good chance of winning.”
McCaw believes it could be the year that Ireland finally delivers at a Rugby World Cup.
“As we have found out in years gone by, where you are ranked going into a World Cup, actually doesn’t necessarily count for a whole lot.
“But just to put aside the rankings, I got to see the Irish in New Zealand last year for three tests and there is a quite a strong resolve about them, of knowing they are on a mission.
“The way they put together that series win was pretty impressive and they have backed it up again just recently so it is going to make it interesting.”
Managing the expectation
The last time a Rugby World Cup was hosted by France in 2007 the expectation proved too much for Les Bleus, and it was only when they escaped the ‘rugby bubble’ back home, and went to Cardiff for a momentous quarter-final tie against McCaw’s All Blacks, that they were able to show their true colours.
France defied the odds to win 20-18 that day and end the All Blacks’ dream for another four years. McCaw, who captained the All Blacks in 110 tests, says the pain from that defeat did so much to lay the platform for their Rugby World Cup win in 2011, where the emotion was more of relief than anything else.
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Twenty-four years had passed since their victory in the inaugural event in 1987 and to wait such a long time between drinks, was deemed unacceptable by a rugby-mad public thirsty for more success.
“In 2007, where leading up to it we had been dominating, we perhaps got a bit ahead of ourselves and you can’t do that when you have got to produce for what is effectively three knockout games in a row,” he admitted.
“Although we had a team that was good enough to win and we had a game plan and strategy and all of that, what we got wrong was we didn’t address what happens if things go wrong – injuries, (referee) calls etc.
“You can have all the best intentions when you go out on the pitch but what do you do if it doesn’t go quite right?
“So fast forward to 2011, while there was a lot of pressure on still, the senior players and coaches who were lucky enough to still be around, we were just grateful to be able to have another go at it.
“We had to call upon all the experiences we’d had in 2007 to get across the line. You say you don’t want to rely on luck but there is sometimes an element that goes your way and you have to take that.
“I think you can get scared and sort of hope that you are just going to play well and think that it’s not going to come down to the bounce of a ball or one or two skills but, actually, that is why it is special to win, you have got to deal with those (unpredictable) moments and that’s what we did.”
Wallabies to be right in the mix
Having successfully carried the weight of expectation on their shoulders, New Zealand followed it up in 2015 against an Australian team that most people considered had punched above their weight just by getting there.
And if there is one lesson McCaw has learned over time, it is not to take the Wallabies lightly, even after a year when they only won five of their 14 tests, including a first-ever loss to Italy, and changed coaches.
McCaw may have got his hands on the Bledisloe Cup more than any other captain in history but he believes Australia, especially with Eddie Jones back in charge, could be a surprise package.
“Eddie Jones, whatever team he takes over, he usually causes some change pretty quick and they get a real bounce and he will probably do the same with the Aussies.
“You might think they might not be where you would usually consider them to be, but they have a unique way of using what they have got to be right in the mix.”