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Richie McCaw: The farm boy who became the world's greatest rugby union player

Richie McCaw was the farm boy who became the embodiment of the all-conquering All Blacks.

If Dan Carter was New Zealand rugby's poster boy and the greatest back of his generation, McCaw was the power in the pack and tough-as-teak commander who drove on possibly the greatest side in team sport.

McCaw led New Zealand to two World Cup triumphs and was named IRB International Player of the Year three times - a record he shares with Carter - but that was only part of the journey as he helped turn the All Blacks into one of the most powerful brands on the planet.

McCaw announced his retirement from rugby the day after All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu's death at the age of 40 sent the sport into mourning.

The endless debates of who is rugby's greatest-ever player will probably be cranked up in the days ahead, but New Zealand's 2015 World Cup-winning coach Steve Hansen had no hesitation when he addressed the topic last month.

"Richie is the best All Black we have ever had and Dan Carter is a close second," Hansen said.

"The only thing that separates them is Richie has played 148 matches at flanker, which is unheard of - you put your body on the line every time you go there."

McCaw, 34, certainly did that as he never shirked a ruck or tackle and emerged the master of the breakdown - the key battleground of modern-day rugby.

Yet the young McCaw, who hailed from Scottish stock as his great-great-grandfather had emigrated from the Borders in 1893, did not treat the game seriously until he was a teenager.

Until then, McCaw was more interested in working on his parents' farm on New Zealand's South Island and flying gliders with his grandfather, a pilot during World War II.

It was not until 1994, when he boarded at Otago Boys' High School in Dunedin, that his interest in the game grew and his potential took him into the 'Baby Blacks' Under-19 squad which won the world championship in 1999.

In 2001, he made his Super Rugby debut with the Crusaders, the first of 145 appearances, and he was named Newcomer of the Year by the International Rugby Players' Association in 2002.

By then, McCaw was already starting to reinvent the role of the number seven.

The openside flanker was traditionally the link between backs and forwards, the man with deft handling skills but who also saw the opponents' outside-half with a target rather than the number ten on his back.

But McCaw had sheer brute strength, capable of mixing it with bigger men at the breakdown as well as possessing the speed and handling skills to play the traditional tearaway and free the backs.

At 6ft 2in and nearly 17 stone McCaw was a formidable physical specimen and turnovers became his speciality and a powerful weapon of any side he played in.

Critics may have sneered that he seemed to wear a cloak of invisibility when it came to the offside laws, but it was more often a case of jealousy and he was simply the best at what he did.

His Test debut came in Ireland in November 2001 and he was named All Blacks captain for the first time, against Wales in 2004, at the tender age of 23.

Super rugby titles at the Crusaders and All Blacks Test wins piled up but, in 2007, New Zealand's World Cup curse struck again when they were shocked by France at the quarter-final stage.

Many pundits felt new law interpretations focusing on offside at the fringes would limit McCaw's influence ahead of the next World Cup, but he added IRB player of the year titles in 2009 and 2010 to his 2006 accolade.

McCaw was now the undisputed best player in the world but he had to carry the burden of New Zealand not having won the World Cup for 24 years on home soil in 2011.

The pressure was unbearable and a foot injury looked like ending his tournament, yet he played on, won his 100th cap and eventually guided the All Blacks to a nerve-jangling 8-7 final victory over France.

That could have been the end of the Richie McCaw rugby story and the keen pilot, who in 2009 was made an honorary squadron leader of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, might have swapped stadiums for the skies for good.

But the mind was still willing and the body still able as Graham Henry passed the coaching reins to Hansen.

If anything, New Zealand got better, McCaw got better and nothing would stand in the way of rugby history as the All Blacks successfully defended the World Cup.

Look at McCaw's numbers and they are simply staggering - 14 years an All Black, a record 149 Test caps and captain of his country 111 times.

McCaw won 131 of the Tests he played with two draws and 15 losses, and scored 27 tries.

But the mind does not replay numbers and the enduring image will be of an ultimate competitor turning over ball, putting in a big hit and breaking loose to set his backs on the charge.

This was a man who is scared of nothing, well almost.

"It was always going to come to an end at some point... and part of (retiring) scares you a little bit," McCaw said last month before lifting the Webb Ellis Cup again.

"I've done the same thing for so many years, so all of a sudden to be having to figure out something else to do is a bit daunting."

You sense McCaw will figure it out, but the world of rugby is much poorer for his retirement.


From Belfast Telegraph