Belfast Telegraph

All Black McCaw still a high flyer, but enjoying life away from the fast lane

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

From the time he was a boarder at Otago Boys' High School, on the night before a game Richie McCaw would write down his goals and finish with three letters: G.A.B.

They stand for Great All Black, the underlining ambition for a rugby career that delivered in spades and which ended almost two years ago with him surpassing his own milestone. Great? He was the greatest.

The air has become the place where the two-time World Cup-winning captain has become most comfortable since he hung up his boots for the final time on Hallowe'en night, 2015. He's a commercial pilot now and he's racking up the hours, dividing his time between the 80% spent helping to run Christchurch Helicopters, the company he part-owns, and attending sponsorship engagements in what is a legacy from his previous life.

On Thursday, one was supposed to meet the other until the weather intervened and the chopper was grounded.

Rather than tour the city from above, we meet on the lower deck of an old-style London bus, which doesn't quite have the same effect.

As the tour bus winds its way around the city that was left devastated by a 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people and caused untold structural damage, the former All Black skipper shakes his head.

"It's only when you come on a tour like this that you actually step back from it and it's actually quite depressing! It's not that bad here," he says as we pass construction sites and the abandoned buildings still standing.

"When you live here, you just get on with it."

It is in McCaw's nature to just get on with things, and so it is that he is living his life to the full despite finishing a career that dominated every facet of his life for two decades.

Last year, a documentary about his final season was released entitled: 'Chasing Great', and in it he outlined his ambition to walk away having had no regrets, having gotten everything out of his career and hopefully with a second World Cup medal.

The film got its happy ending, the hero lifted the Webb Ellis Cup at the end, but 20 months on the question lingers: is going out at the top really all it's cracked up to be? "It's going to be difficult regardless, but I was really lucky on two counts," he reflects.

"I got to finish when I wanted to, which not everyone gets to do. That can sometimes bring about regrets, but I didn't have any.

"I got to choose when, which I was pretty happy with, and there's times where I miss it, but that doesn't mean I want to go back and do it… it was time to move on, I'd no regrets and it was the right time. I have something I'm enjoying but you know I loved the time I had, but I'm also loving what I'm doing now.

"The other thing is, a lot of the friends that you played with for a long time have moved on too so it'd be a different team."

His new job puts him in pressurised situations where decision-making is key, but he dismisses the assumption that he has replaced like with like.

"It's completely different, but there's certainly a challenge element," he says of flying.

"I'm not rocking in at a level where you haven't done your time, I've served my time in terms of getting my licence sorted and moving my way up through the different categories and experience and all of that. I got the challenge of being involved in the business and trying to build that, so learning and having a challenge is what I had and that's what I've got with this.

"The high pressure and all that sort of stuff is different."

So, his life has moved on. He married his partner Gemma in January and keeps his competitive edge in adventure races. Remarkably, given the punishment he took, he says he wakes up without pains and aches and seems content with not playing any more.

This week is one of those where the pangs are more likely to come. The competitive animal within McCaw is awoken by a series like the Lions, whom he helped defeat in 2005.

"It's right up there because it's so unique," he recalls of that 3-0 series win.

"You're lucky if you get a crack, you might be an All Black for 10 years and still miss out. 2005 had a little bit extra for us because the English were the World champions, Clive Woodward had a lot of his players from that England team and that kept us right on edge.

"The anticipation was a bit like this time; two years out you're hoping you get a chance to be right. You didn't want to blow that opportunity.

"It does bring back good memories and you could look at it and say, 'Jeez, I wish I was playing' or you can say I was privileged to get a crack 12 years ago and I know what it was like.

"When the boys run out on to the field on Saturday I'll say to myself, 'That'd be cool to be out there', but sitting here now I'm looking forward to watching and not wishing I was playing."

It helps the transition that the new custodians have retained the standards set by himself, Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu who all played for the team for the last time in that final success over Australia.

"If the team had dipped or those guys hadn't been up to it, rather than being a slight on those guys not being up it, it would have been on us that we didn't leave it in a good place," he says.

"Steve Hansen was big on making sure that we had the next group of players and leaders that could pick it up and carry on. That's what's happened, it's something I'm proud of, that we didn't leave a big hole, we left it in a state where things can just carry on and so far it has."

The only defeat they've suffered since he retired came in Chicago and, while he didn't enjoy the experience alongside Brian O'Driscoll and some other Irish fans at Soldier Field, he reckons it will stand to the team in the long run.

"In an ironic sort of way, I think it's helped the All Blacks," he says.

"If they had gone through unbeaten last year, you'd be worried they might take it for granted, but for the new All Blacks that was a wee lesson that there's not much in the fine lines between winning and losing."

That victory only added to Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's reputation and the New Zealander is talked of in terms of a potential successor to Hansen, who could step down after the next World Cup, Schmidt's expected exit-date with Ireland.

McCaw doesn't know the former Leinster coach well but has admired him from afar. However, it is a competitive field.

"I'm not sure how they would look at it because there's no doubt he's a pretty good student of the game," he says of Schmidt.

"From what I've heard he really knows what he's doing and it's great for New Zealand that we've got guys like him, Vern Cotter and Warren Gatland. There's a lot of guys who could potentially coach New Zealand who know what the international circuit is all about."

"If Joe ends up doing that, putting his hat in the ring, whether he's got to come to New Zealand first or not I'm not sure, but we're in pretty good shape.

In New Zealand, the All Blacks are widely expected to win the series 3-0, but within the rugby community there is a hesitance to make that bold commitment.

The more knowledgeable fans have watched the Lions come together with a little bit of concern and, while he's tipping the home side to succeed, McCaw is wary of the team that Gatland has put together.

"There's no doubt this will be a big one and it'll be a pretty good measure of where everyone's at," he says.

"The Lions are a genuine threat that could easily win, that's what makes sport intriguing. In the Crusaders game they really played to their strengths, the Crusaders this year are not in the same league as the All Blacks but they use the ball a lot and the Lions did well at dictating the play. They did the same against the Maori.

"If they get to do that against the All Blacks they'll take away a lot of their strengths. The All Blacks have some players with real X-factor and if they're allowed to do what they want to do they'll be hard to contain."

The G.A.B. is gone and it's on the next generation to carry the torch. Flying is his game now, even if our flight had to be cancelled.

"It's better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground," he concludes as we part. It's hard to disagree.

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