After John Matheson's turgid account of Richie McCaw's career up until 2009 (the title 'Richie McCaw: A tribute to a modern day football legend' should have been the main hint itself to what blandness laid in wait for me), I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Greg McGee had been given the job of writing our current captain's autobiography in 2012.
What Matheson's book didn't deliver (unless of course you wanted to trawl through an archive of every match report written by the average middle aged male sports hack of Fairfax about McCaw's stellar career to date) has been up to McGee to rectify. The book I'd been waiting for was something more personal. Something that all rugby journalists have never seemed to have the imagination to tackle.
I wanted to read about the real McCaw. How does he feel gliding among the "wee puffy clouds along the mountainous ridges that run along the edge of the Mackenzie Country" and what really makes him tick. Besides stating the bleeding obvious which is repeated ad lib in most rugby biographical articles and books about the man, (such as who coached McCaw where and what games he played when), what were the more personal aspects that have driven our number 7. Who are the parents of this freakish rugby giant? What did they do to bring someone up who was so determined? Was Watties baked beans the secret formula? Did he scrummage fence posts a la Meads or tackle sheep in the moonlight? Was he ever depressed and did people tell him to harden up?
McGee's book has a crack, but because McCaw by nature is a humble and private hero, this book was never going to produce answers to all my questions. But there were still some nuggets in there. Brought up in the Hakataramea valley, on a cropping/pasture farm inland of the beautiful South Island, McCaw was born on New years eve in 1980. Being born in December means he always had a physical grunt in age grade rugby at school (read Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers' for more on this). So the stars were already aligned for him it seems.
"The thing that defines me 24/7 is my family," says McCaw. Personally, I would have liked a little more about his family. Don, his Dad, is the farmer; his younger sister Jo a sporting success in her own right having represented Canterbury at netball; and his mother Margaret, a teacher. The family, like many New Zealand rural familie,s are drenched in sporting and rugby tradition. Don's done a bit of refereeing himself and Margaret's brothers are two former reps for Mid Canterbury. They help McCaw write out a list planning his rugby ambitions to become a GAB. The defining list is all jotted down on a table in the Oamaru McDonalds for a celebratory family lunch (I can only assume this was the late 1980s when most farming families - mine included - thought a flash day out was a meal at Maccy Ds).
McCaw's childhood is taken up with school, travelling to and fro, and then practising his rugby moves in the paddock out back, visualising no doubt the moments when he would kick the winning drop goal over in some far off year into the future rugby world cup final. Like most rural kids, a lot of his time is spent alone in the outdoors, and here is where I can imagine the resolve in his ambition is truly born. There have been other All Blacks from the Kurow area and so he notes, his dreams are already doable. "All us kids knew we had All Blacks from our neck of the woods who were farmers and locals, just like us, so had it in the backs of our minds that to rise so high wasn't completely impossible".
The book alternates between the near present and the distant past. Unlike Matheson's match by match statistical approach, we are treated to only a few of the seminal match reports (you can guess which ones), and what was running through his mind emotionally and strategically during these nail biting tests. Then there's the fallout from Cardiff in 2007 - what McCaw really thought of Wayne Barnes's performance that day (not much) and the great coaching venn diagram that was Henry V Deans with McCaw stuck in the middle that came in its wake.
Of course, we now know that McCaw went with Team Ted. McCaw finds it rather hard to stomach when an Auckland cab driver announces he'll be supporting the Wallabies now the NZRFU have chosen Ted over the Australian bound Deans. "What is the world coming to when an Aucklander tells me he'll be supporting Australia because the Canterbury coach has gone?"
McCaw briefly dwells on the rugby men he admires, and this is rare given that his post match speeches are always very All Black centric. Strikingly he returns frequently to the French no 7 Thierry Dusatoir in constant complimentary terms. "Dusatoir is bigger, faster and completely indomitable (compared to Betsen). He can fetch, carry, dominate the tackle and clean out. And worryingly, I've never seen a bead of sweat on the man." He has good words to say about Schalk Burger and even Nathan Sharpe - although he is not overly impressed with the Wallaby set up, claiming that they (unlike the Springboks) no longer want to meet after the match for a few beers since the Deans era started. He relishes the opportunity to play for the Baa Baas alongside some of his frequent foes: George Gregan, John Smit and Jean de Villiers "are all pretty good men - you have to be to stay in top level rugby for any level of time." I wonder how long McCaw thinks Quade Cooper will be around for then. I suspect he thinks that Quade will get his beans.
For his own team mates there is a high level of respect for the men that played closely with him in the great era of 2005-2007. Particularly Rodney So'oialo and Jerry Collins. And when both warriors drop in form, an insight....when the heart is not in it anymore, the body and form is quick to follow. Also, a shadow hangs. It must be heavy to watch your team mates of your prime begin to flounder. It must bring to mind your own rugby lifespan. "There's a real sadness over the demise of Rodders...he has been one of our best for so many years, always combative, super-fit, tough. I've become used to him being there and doing what he's always done. It's been a surpise, like Jerry, that he's hit the wall so fast. It's not through lack of willpower, but sometimes the conscious mind seems unable to force the unconscious to go to the painful places any more. I hope that if that time comes for me, I'm the first to see it."
The Dan Carter allegiance is touched on although Richie seems to have more of a friendly connection with loose cannon Ali 'spiderman' Williams whom he flatted with while Williams played for Canterbury (McCaw did the cooking - meat and three veg most nights for tea, or on a more adventurous evening - spag bol. Ali did the dishes).
His relationship with the quieter Carter could be interpreted as two business associates who have a synchronicity and great level of understanding on the field. Both have the weight of a country's expectations on their shoulders. Both from small rural outposts and not born too far from each other, the respect for Carter is apparent throughout the book. From feeling the pain for Dan and his heartbreaking withdrawal through injury from the RWC in 2011 through to McCaw asking Dan to seriously consider resigning with the All Blacks after 2007 when he knows the European sharks are circling for the number 10's signature. There is a name for a relationship that lives itself in so many parallels like this. That their names will forever be entwined in rugby almanacs in the future.
There are touches of humour in the book. Byron Kelleher is "an ideal halfback personality, but a man who never leaves a thought unsaid." On Brad Thorne, "I'd been giving Brad a bit of shit that he was Bakkies' twin, and they do have a certain resemblance, helped by their reliance on God, presumably in different incarnations, to bless them in creating mayhem against one another." And little digs throughout at the style of rugby the English rugby team play (to be expected, but still edifying to read).
McCaw takes a satisfying swing at a horrid little New Zealand rugby hack, and although he doesn't mention the name, we all know it's Chris Rattue he's taking aim at, and for that Richie, we salute you and feel relieved you feel the same way too. We hear about McCaw's father's ominous feeling before the Cardiff game in 2007 and Don and Jo rushing security at the end of the match so that they can be there for their son and brother. (That little section brought a tear to my eye).
Obviously, a chapter is dedicated to the devastation of his hometown's tragic destruction during the Christchurch earthquake of 2011. The post traumatic stress many of his team mates go through as they battle to win (and fail) another super rugby title. McCaw was with Kieran Reid eating sushi in a cafe when the earthquake struck. (Sushi! You can almost hear Richard Loe's Waikato Draught going down the wrong way when he read that one).
No book would be complete without the other love affair in McCaw's life. Gliding. It is no secret that his Grandfather Jim was a fighter pilot in the second world war and screeds have already been written about his grandfather the war hero.
Gliding is in McCaw's blood. His family are heavily involved in the local gliding club and within 48 hours of touching down in NZ after the autumn internationals in the northern hemisphere, like clockwork, McCaw turns up at Omarama airfield, eager to lower himself into the Discus cockpit. Here he can forget rugby and relishes the environment where he is treated like a normal dude, without the starry eyes of a New Zealand rugby public trying to get their modern day autographs on their mobile phones (of which I am embarrassed to admit, I have played my part).
McCaw's gliding tutor and friend Gavin Wills believes he can predict who of McCaw's girlfriends will last. 'Gavin gives them the speech about my future as an ace glider pilot and watches their eyes glaze over." Maybe it's an indicator for the future Mrs McCaw. It's going to be hard enough to crack into McCaw's inner circle let alone be accepted by the New Zealand public. One gets the feeling that any woman who wants to take up with McCaw is going to be seen somewhat as New Zealand's version of Yoko Ono.
McCaw's pragmatic nature does come across however, even on the subject of falling in love. "Love isn't something you can find by focusing harder on or by crunching numbers or making radical changes to how you go about things. Public recognition doesn't help: half the women run a mile and the ones who are attracted to that sort of thing are probably the ones I should avoid! Like everyone else, I've just got to wait until it happens, and like everyone else, I'll need a bit of luck to meet the right person, and to know it when I do."
This pragmatism is probably what keeps McCaw single. What time is there for love when you have world cups to win, number one rankings to maintain and a vicious rugby public that will eat you alive if you so much as hint at failure... not to mention the modern day gladiators you have to contend with in a blood bath nearly every Saturday night for the best part of each year. It all takes focus and selfishness to be the best in the world. When you're this good, there can't be a lot of time for much else.
Rugby and the attitudes towards the game and the players have moved on due to McCaw's and Henry's stewardship. Good people make good rugby players has been the mantra. And maybe this is why McCaw's autobiography, even though well written, still does not deliver on all things we really want to know about the man. McCaw is aware of the responsibility he carries and unlike other hotheads, is not going to find himself drunkenly gatecrashing a wedding reception semi naked and doing a haka on the dancefloor (although let's face it, who wouldn't rather enjoy that). He has dignity and is a private person. For this reason, as much as I absorbed and enjoyed every word of this book, I am still left with a longing to know more about him. Maybe when McCaw's rugby days are in the distant past, and the final chapters are added to this well meaning bio, we will get the cadence on the history of the man that so many of us in this country adore.
Greg McGee - interview about Richie McCaw