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The Club

R.H McCaw

From Millton to McCaw

From The Old Club: The History of the Christchurch Football Club 1863 -2013.
Written by Tony Murdoch

The Christchurch Club’s lineage of All Black captains numbers five. They span the period 1884 to 2012 and while each man links to a specific era in New Zealand rugby there are similarities and there are common leadership traits. All were professional men. Two were lawyers, William Millton and Jock Hobbs; Bob Duff was an accountant and Jack Manchester worked in management. The “captain who-never-was”, Beau Cottrell, was a lawyer while Mike Brewer and Tiny Hill who both captained teams on tour, were an NCO and a marketing manager respectively. All were highly respected individuals who led as much by personal commitment as they did by great deeds on the field. Richie McCaw is the club’s 31st All Black and the fifth captain. He is the first club All Black to have played all his rugby as a professional yet his personal qualities, his stamp as a player and a leader, see him sit easily alongside his predecessors. Unlike them he has lived his life under a media spotlight that would break lesser mortals yet his personal equilibrium, the balance between the public and private McCaw, is kept in check. The Canterbury rugby public can be fickle and the qualities they admire can differ markedly from those “flash Harrys up north.” In the pre-professional days they were devoted to Fergie McCormick; they tolerated Derek Arnold’s eccentric genius and they doted on Andrew Merhtens. In the past decade it is Richie McCaw who has taken the mantle of favourite son. Within the Christchurch club there is a shared delight at his performances on the field and his occasional presence at the clubrooms on a Saturday is a matter of collective joy, from small boys and their sisters, to mums and dads and of course to the rank and file members. In 2012 he turned up to assist with presentations, immediately he was swamped and spent 40 or so minutes graciously signing autographs and posing for photographs with the youngsters and the occasional pushy mum. All done with dignity and good grace. There was an acknowledgement to the older group, the Axemen, who basked in his reflected greatness just as they had when Beau Cottrell introduced Lugger Manchester or Tommy George acknowledged Bob Duff or when Jock Hobbs settled in with his devilish trio of loose forward mates. They had seen it all before but this was another moment of justification for their devotion to the club. Somewhere the ghostly rugby-men of the club’s past would have been nodding in appreciation because they had seen good and great men in the red and black and to a man, they would have recognised McCaw’s outrageous talent, his dedication and his manly qualities. Then he moved on to the seniors and the “Div. 3” boys, a number of who had known from him from the time he joined the club in 1999. In this company his smile was more apparent and he gently relaxed into any evening, doubtless fending off jibes from old team mates who remembered a kid from North Otago who quietly and surely became the best player in the Colts team that year and, as Toby Giles said, “tackled everyone from first-five to the wing”

The interview with Richie McCaw took place after the heart-stopping victory in the 2011 rugby world cup. McCaw, as has been well documented had played with a badly injured foot, was in a moon boot. He greeted Jerry Rowberry and the author with a cheerful “Gidday boys…come on in…can I get you a cup of tea or a coffee.” So we sat there as he hopped about and made the tea, just as any farmers son would do, and the chit chat of the interview began with us thinking, “cripes shouldn’t we have been doing the tea making…after all he is the All Black captain and IRB player of the year…he is the name on everyone’s lips and he’s just bloody well won the world cup.”

Unlike some of the other club All Blacks McCaw had a strong recall of the games he played for Christchurch, laughingly admitting that it was not that many so it was easy to remember. He had joined the club in 1999 mostly at the urging of Bryan Mustchin, the Clubs recruiting officer at the time. He had been in the Otago Boys High School 1st XV for two years but had opted to come to Canterbury when Sam Harding, a Christ’s College product, got enticed south. McCaw said, “To be honest I wasn’t really thinking about rugby then…I applied and got a Lincoln University rugby scholarship” and this meant he was part of the Canterbury Academy system. He admits he was under some pressure to go to Otago University and take an academic course of studies. This was not surprising because he was runner-up to the dux, a significant achievement anywhere but especially so at Otago Boys High School.

Bryan Mustchin said McCaw was on his radar and had “been talked about”. He recalled that he had gone to watch Craig Newby play in a match but kept noticing McCaw, “I particularly liked how this young guy just kept going.”

When McCaw got to Lincoln he found that nearly all the Academy players were going to play for HSOB but had not made his mind up when Mustchin made contact. Both men have retold the telephone conversation and it seems remarkably brief.

“Richie McCaw, Bryan Mustchin Christchurch Football Club here…listen we’ve got trials for our Colts this week would you like to come along.”

[Richie] “Yeh, sure, where is it”

“Christchurch Park, Tuesday night…I’ll give you a call, just to double check.”

“Cheers”

It may in fact have had more details but the message was fairly succinct and so McCaw, just as he had done when choosing Lincoln University, marched to his own beat, in effect choosing to go his own way and to make his own mark.

In due course McCaw trialled and at some stage during the week Mustchin told him that he would be playing Colts and would not be rushed into Seniors. “This was the best thing I ever did…I really enjoyed the year and I liked the way the Club functioned…it was easy to sense the traditions.”, said McCaw. The Colts that year did not make the final but it was a happy year and before the seasons end McCaw had made his Senior debut. He was also selected for the NZ under 19 team. Not surprisingly he was the Christchurch Colts forward of the year and the club newsletter commented, “An outstanding young man who was in a class of his own at Colts level. We could see Richard playing for Canterbury next year and it won’t be long before he joins the All Blacks.”

Prophetic words indeed and wise rugby heads in the city were alert to McCaw’s growing reputation because the CRFU signed him to a $5000 a year contract. By the seasons end McCaw began thinking about rugby as a career and selection in the Senior team in 2000 was another step in the process. The Christchurch team that year was coached by Viv de Beus and John Sherratt and there was early season training camp in Queensland to begin with. McCaw had a broken thumb but travelled with the team.

Viv De Beus’s memories of McCaw’s training give another insight into his determination. “ We trained in the morning and it was about 35 degrees…Richie would do all the warm-ups and when we did contact work he would do repetition work and would still be going when we finished.” It was a great year for Christchurch with the team doing the double of the Cup and the Trophy, winning the Club’s first Championship for 24 years.

De Beus said that McCaw was outstanding and his characteristic work at the breakdown was already too fast for the local referees. “Against Linwood Richie had been killing them but kept getting penalised…at halftime I spoke to Vinny Munro and said, that he was not fast enough to keep up with Richie’s play and shouldn’t penalise him…Munro sort of agreed and then said, ‘but I have to ref what I see “

McCaw was selected for the Canterbury NPC team to play North Harbour, making his first class debut as a replacement and then came a Crusaders contract signing him for four years. “This time I knew the direction of my life had changed and my future was laid out for me.” It was also pretty much the end the end of his club rugby apart some games in 2001 and a come-back match in 2009.

The 2001 team was a highly successful combination and again won the first round. It then set its sights on the double and won its way into the final with a good win over HSOB, ironically the team it had earlier meet in the semi-final. In a close fought encounter Old Boys won 23-20 but McCaw believes the game turned on a poor decision by the touch judge who allowed play to continue after an Old Boy’s player was clearly in touch, “…to be honest I couldn’t believe he let play go on…it cost us the game.”

This admission shed more light on to the McCaw character. Despite having played over a hundred Tests and countless matches for the Crusaders he had a sharp and not very happy memory of a club final that took place over ten years ago. One sensed that his keen intellect digested every match and stored the key moments, those learned experiences that lend strength to future actions.

In 2009, after recovering from injury he played for the Club against Lincoln. It was a typically bleak winter’s day but the ground was packed. “It was a bit embarrassing really…and then of course I turned over the first ball I took up…should have passed it.” For the faithful Red and Black supporters the day was memorable because the kid from Kurow who had promised so much and then achieved even more had returned to the place where that precocious talent was identified, briefly nurtured and then farewelled.

By the end of 2012 McCaw had played 116 test matches, 79 as captain. It is staggering record and the plaudits that have come his way are deserved. In the world of professional rugby he has emerged as a critical factor in the success of the All Blacks, most notably in the 2011 World Cup victory over France. Looking at his performance over the years it is possible to compare him with the Christchurch club’s other All Black captains.

The sub-heading for Bob Duff’s profile read, “With a nation on his shoulders” and this most certainly applied to McCaw in the 2011 World Cup final. Jack Manchester had a difficult tour of the UK in 1935 but his own playing standards remained at a high level and he never lost his dignity. McCaw has captained a sometimes disparate group of professionals, but his own standards have never slipped and his dignity and self-composure are legendary. Jock Hobbs constantly put his body on the line and was courageous in the extreme. McCaw’s selfless play and ability to play through pain put him alongside Hobbs and Mike Brewer in this respect. William Millton was a trail blazer for rugby and when required was prepared to throw himself into a raging surf to rescue lives. McCaw has similarly blazed a trail for professional rugby and when confronted with a drunken pitch invader in South Africa courageously interceded to protect the referee.

But perhaps the most telling comparison is with Beau Cottrell who as a young man would meet Jack Manchester at the lighted ground to practice long into the dusk, committed to a goal both would achieve with distinction. In the mind’s eye one can see the young McCaw, sweat pouring from him under the blazing Queensland sun, relentlessly building his aerobic base, focused on a goal which he too would attain, bringing the same glow his Christchurch Club predecessors garnered, not just for the moment, but for the rest of their lives.

Seasons for CFC:                            1999 - 2001
Matches For Canterbury:                               34
Matches for Crusaders:                               120
Matches For New Zealand:       117 (116 Tests)


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