NZ Rugby World
PLAYING THE VICTIM
NZ RUGBY WORLD HAS BEEN GIVEN AN EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM EDITOR, GREGOR PAUL’S, NEW BOOK, THE CAPTAIN’S RUN. THE CHAPTER LOOKS AT WHETHER VARIOUS ALL BLACKS CAPTAINS HAVE BEEN VICTIMISED OVER THE YEAR.
There’s no other job in New Zealand, in rugby, that comes with such a mix of adulation and hate. But that’s life as All Blacks captain. It’s a post where the occupant is revered in New Zealand and often despised, certainly not liked much, everywhere else. It’s long been this way, but the vitriol directed at All Blacks captains has intensified as the legacy of the team and the profile of the game has grown. Success has bred jealousy and jealousy has clouded the judgement of many of those determined to beat the All Blacks.
The determination to beat the All Blacks is relentless around the world. They are the benchmark, the scalp everyone wants. It doesn’t matter who the world champions are, a victory against the All Blacks will be seen as the greatest achievement in the game. Plenty of international sides have been in the midst of an appalling run of form and then been transformed into something unrecognisable when they have played the All Blacks. It is rare indeed for any team to have a bad day against the All Blacks.
Somehow the sight of that black jersey, the prospect of, maybe, beating the legendary All Blacks, sees otherwise mediocre rugby teams become giants for 80 minutes.
A bad season can become a good season by beating the All Blacks. A victory against the All Blacks can save coaching careers and rejuvenate fading players. A victory can change a player’s life. It’s that big a deal. The Scots have never managed to beat New Zealand. Ireland took 111 years to do it, and when they did, every player involved had the certainty of knowing they would hold a treasured place in Irish sporting history. Wales haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1953 and the last time France did it was 2009.
When the prize is an All Blacks victory, emotions run high. Passions can spill over into something else and all perspective can be lost. It’s a sign of respect, probably, that over the years All Blacks captains have often been demonised. The rest of the world has found it easier to attribute the All Blacks’ continued brilliance to something dark and sinister rather than believe it might be hard work, innovation and collective ingenuity that has kept New Zealand at the top of the table. And this narrative reads best when the All Blacks captain is painted as the devil incarnate. At some stage in their respective careers, every All Blacks captain of the last 50 years will have experienced a period of vilification or victimisation.
Tana Umaga was vilified by foreign fans and media for his role in invaliding British & Irish Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll out of the 2005 tour. But two men in particular, Sean Fitzpatrick and Richie McCaw, endured endless and relentless opprobrium about the way they played and the things they allegedly did. No other captains have been the subject of such ire, which may be testament to their respective longevity in the role and globally recognised brilliance in performing it. They sparked a fury in others that was off the scale at times. They are among the captains New Zealanders have respected the most, but on foreign shores they cast a different shadow.
‘The South Africans loved to hate him,’ former All Blacks coach John Hart says of Fitzpatrick. ‘I think it was in the second test of the 1996 series that Springboks captain Gary Teichmann got his head split open and he came off. I got a ring from the African manager Morné du Plessis afterwards to say that they were really disappointed at what had happened and that they blamed Fitzpatrick for it. So I said, “Oh, can I come back to you?” ‘So I went with Jane Dent [media manager] and watched the video of the game and there’s Teichmann on the ground and there’s activity and it turns out it was friendly fire. One of his own guys kicked him in the head. And I couldn’t see Fitzpatrick. So we played it over and over again and then we let it go on and there’s Fitzpatrick out on the wing where he used to play quite a bit of the time.
‘Well the media got to hear about this because Morné must have said something. So the next day I demanded an apology and I’ve still got the photo that they put in the paper with me standing next to Fitzy with a halo on his head. Players hated playing against him but he was just fantastic to play with.’ Being the focal point of opposition anger suited Fitzpatrick.
He loved it despite the fact it saw him subjected to serious physical assaults throughout his career as captain. But he never reacted when the cheap shots landed. He’d take it all — absorb whatever punishment came his way, smile, sometimes even wink at the perpetrator, and give the impression he was possibly indestructible. Nor did he ever say anything. There was no whining from Fitzpatrick.
There was also the verbal taunting from opposition fans everywhere. He was called every name imaginable. He had fans chuck whatever they could find at him and boo and hiss his every move. Nothing but smiles and waves flowed back. Few captains have been so content to be cast in the role of pantomime villain.
‘I loved it,’ says Fitzpatrick. ‘It was a way of taking pressure off the team. It took their [opposition] focus off, you know. I loved playing South Africa especially. In those days we didn’t warm up on the field, but I always wanted to go onto the field just to annoy the hell out of the fans. They would go nuts. I would be walking into the stadium and they’d be throwing things at me and I’d turn around and be waving at them and it was all part of it, trying to silence the crowd. We enjoyed playing offshore as an All Blacks team. We liked hostile environments.
‘I remember when Allan Border, the former Australian cricket captain, came to New Zealand and I met him at a function. He said he used to get booed and jeered everywhere he went and he said, “Sean, that is a mark of respect.”’
Having seen their beloved team lose three times in New Zealand in June, a jam-packed Twickenham is confident that England will beat the All Blacks in their fourth encounter of 2014. That faith is starting to fade shortly after half-time when the All Blacks, albeit clumsily, exploit a three-man overlap to set McCaw over the tryline and give the visitors a 21–14 lead. The fact it’s McCaw who has landed this damaging blow has exacerbated the mood swing among the 82,000 present from optimistic to poisonous.
Twickenham has never been overly hospitable to the All Blacks but it is particularly hostile in November 2014, and most of the venom is being spat in the direction of McCaw. It’s less than a year until the World Cup kicks off and the English, as hosts, sense they need to beat the All Blacks at least once in 2014 to set themselves up psychologically. Their fans also seem to believe they need to do their part in unsettling the defending champion
All Blacks and that the best way to do that is to subject McCaw to endless booing and jeering with cries of ‘cheat’ reverberating around the ground every time he’s near the ball.
The lack of respect for the All Blacks captain is appalling and it is coming off the back of the increasing media agenda in the UK to label him a cheat. Throughout his career, McCaw has been dogged by accusations — from players, coaches and media — that he bends and breaks the rules to suit whatever purpose his team needs. The Times, Telegraph and Guardian had all devoted their Saturday coverage to writing different versions of the same thing — that if referee Nigel Owens is prepared to penalise McCaw’s inevitable cheating then England have a great chance of winning. McCaw is a massive source of frustration to everyone other than the All Blacks and
New Zealanders, and by 2014, with the All Blacks looking so imperious, the English fans can’t see him for the legendary player he is and are sold entirely on this vision of him as the devil.
The shame of it is that it will be the last time McCaw plays on English soil before the World Cup and the Twickenham crowd, in their blind rage, have missed one of the great openside performances of the age. McCaw was outstanding in the 24–21 victory, and 10 minutes after scoring the critical try, he pulled off a turnover where the entirety of the English pack tried to budge him and yet he remained on his feet having entered the ruck legally and won his side the penalty. It was brave and brilliant — the sort of act every aspiring No. 7 in England should have been shown to inspire them — and yet the crowd were incensed. McCaw could have punched an old lady and it would have been better received, and the anger wasn’t confined to the cheaper seats in the stadium.
As McCaw pulled off his incredible match-winning turnover, the enraged fan sitting in front of the royal box and
All Blacks coaches is now incandescent. He’s wearing red jeans, a pink shirt, a Burberry jacket and checked cheese-cutter — a near parody of the stereotypical toff. No doubt his Range Rover is in the car park at the back of the stand and his luncheon included a drop of something to fire him up as he spent the first 60 minutes hurling abuse at McCaw. Now he has turned to face Hansen, who is metres away, and is screaming with the compulsory lisp and plummy accent: ‘Wichie McCaw is a horrible cheat and you must do something!’ Hansen is less amazed and more saddened that his captain is being treated like this. He could sense the mood was volatile even before the kick-off when Prince Harry, just a few seats away, was booming out England’s adopted anthem, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, during the haka to drown it out. But it’s a new low certainly when McCaw is named man of the match and no one can hear his on-field interview because of the booing. Actually, the real low came an hour or so later at the after-match function when RFU president Jon Dance is understood to have opened proceedings by saying: ‘I’m just going to come out and say what everyone is thinking, England deserved to win that game’ — the inference clear enough that the supposed illegal work of McCaw had made all the difference.