Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Richie McCaw aiming to seize his last chance of glory

Richie McCaw

It is reasonable to suppose no great player in the history of rugby union ever longed for something more desperately than Richie McCaw craves victory in tomorrow's World Cup final - a desire so deep-seated McCaw himself has struggled for words to describe it.

It is not the first time he has been unable to express his feelings at one of these global gatherings - four years ago, his response to defeat at the quarter-final stage was conveyed not in sentences, but in teardrops.

Now, the long-serving All Black captain has this one last chance to lay hands on a prize the whole of New Zealand believes to be his by right.

If it is true that France, riven by internal squabbling that has left the head coach Marc Lievremont more isolated than an imprisoned innocent in an Alexandre Dumas novel, are in no psychological state to raise a hand against a performer of McCaw's quality, then this could easily be the most one-sided final since the inaugural showpiece in 1987 - a match contested by the same two nations, on the same patch of grass in an unremarkable suburb of New Zealand's largest city.

Then, a ground-breaking All Black pack, bolstered by attacking backs as good as John Kirwan and John Gallagher, took a tired band of Tricolores to the cleaners, outscoring them by three tries to one in a 29-9 victory.

This New Zealand side is not of the same quality - not good enough at half-back without the stricken Dan Carter, not sufficiently dominant in the grunt-and-groan department - but then, these Tricolores are not nearly as cohesive, let alone as captivating, as that first World Cup vintage.

Without some sort of emotional transformation, signs of which have emerged in recent days without being entirely convincing, they are at risk of suffering a thorough beating.

Certainly, the assumption here is that this will be McCaw's moment. Long acknowledged to be the best open-side flanker in the sport - a breakaway forward who deserves to join Waka Nathan, Graham Mourie and Michael Jones in the silver-ferned pantheon - he demonstrated in last week's semi-final win over Australia that even on one leg (his well-documented metatarsal problems are by no means a thing of the past) he is both a champion competitor and a highly effective leader.

Graham Henry, the head coach, will say nothing to his players before kick-off tomorrow. Why? Because he trusts McCaw to say all that needs saying.

When another member of the coaching staff, Wayne Smith, talks of McCaw, he does so in the context of All Blacks past - when he looks at photographs of the greats of yesteryear, even the sepia prints of the 1905 "Originals", he sees a common thread.

"Like so many of our finest players, Richie is bright and he's humble," Smith said.

"He comes from a rural background, so he's tough and never gets too far ahead of himself.

"He can play a game of rugby in his head, and the good thing from my perspective is that the team as a whole is starting to reflect his skills and values as an individual. He has been a really, really positive influence on this group."

History tells us that if any team can deliver an upset here, where New Zealand lose so rarely, it is the French.

No one can say with complete confidence that they are incapable of victory tomorrow, although the chances appear remote.

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