A glider, aca­demic, arch scavenger – and true great

Oliver Brown trav­els to Kurow on New Zealand’s South Is­land and hears how All Black leg­end was shaped by val­ues gleaned as a wide-eyed child

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport Rugby World Cup 2015 -

To drive through the re­motest swathes of the South Is­land is to recog­nise why New Zealand has been the set­ting for so many epic films. Ev­ery stretch of State High­way 83 from Oa­maru to Omarama, past the cas­cades of the Waitaki River and the St Mary’s moun­tain range be­yond – a kind of Glen­coe on acid – brings panora­mas of heart-stop­ping, takea-pic­ture-in-ev­ery-layby beauty.

At the heart of this high­land Arcadia sits Kurow, a ser­vice vil­lage so tiny that one can flash through it in third gear. There is no sign scream­ing that it is the birthplace of Richie McCaw, the great­est mod­ern All Black, no statue to celebrate the com­mu­nity’s most cher­ished son. That is not the Kurow style.

A lit­tle un­der two years ago, McCaw made a rare re­turn to his na­tive wilder­ness, to be hon­oured with life­time mem­ber­ship of his lo­cal club. Ross Pa­ton, both the club pres­i­dent and the pub­li­can at the Kurow Ho­tel, re­flects mist­ily that it felt like the most nat­u­ral re­union.

“Richie hasn’t changed a bit,” he says. “It wasn’t as if he was the All Blacks cap­tain. He was just one of us. We sat round the ta­ble and had a nat­ter and a beer, and we could have been talk­ing to the guy next door.”

In com­mon with each of Kurow’s 339 in­hab­i­tants, Pa­ton is still glo­ry­ing in the na­tional namecheck that the place re­ceived last month from Steve Hansen, the All Blacks head coach, who ac­claimed McCaw on the oc­ca­sion of his world record 142nd Test at Eden Park as an “or­di­nary guy from Kurow, ca­pa­ble of ex­tra­or­di­nary things”. Moved by the mem­ory, he says: “It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when you hear that.”

McCaw left the homestead at the age of 13 for board­ing school in Dunedin, but he has con­sis­tently trans­lated the val­ues gleaned as a child into his lead­er­ship of the world’s most dom­i­nant team.

He would no sooner talk about his own feats then he would de­mean him­self on a celebrity panel show. Hu­mil­ity, in his case, is no mere plat­i­tude. In the lead-up to his Bledis­loe Cup farewells in Auck­land this sum­mer, he had to be press-ganged into any ac­knowl­edge­ment of sur­pass­ing Brian O’Driscoll’s 141 Tests.

Such is the way of a man who, when of­fered a knight­hood by New Zealand’s prime min­is­ter John Key for win­ning the 2011 World Cup, turned it down.

Dei­dre Se­nior, the prin­ci­pal at Waitaki Val­ley School here, ex­plains: “Kurow peo­ple are tire­less, com­mu­nity-ori­en­tated folk. They also have high ex­pec­ta­tions of any­thing they do. There was an ex­pec­ta­tion early that Richie would be­come an All Black. These days, you see a very un­der­stated pride in ev­ery­thing he does. Most of our boys at the school grow up idol­is­ing him. It is a very down-to-earth work ethic. If you work hard, you reap the re­wards, and that is what he has done.”

Per­haps the stout­ness of the stock in Kurow is owed partly to the harsh­ness of the land­scape, where high-coun­try sheep and cat­tle farm­ing abound. For McCaw forms part of a re­mark­able tra­di­tion of back-row tal­ent in this re­gion.

Two of the flankers play­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive rugby for North Otago hail from Se­nior’s school of only 107 pupils. Even more eerily, one of them, a red-haired 13-yearold named Locky Collins, is grow­ing up in the same house that McCaw once called home.

McCaw’s par­ents, Don­ald and Mar­garet, have since left the area, but their farm, reach­able via a de­tour over the re­built Haka bridge on the edge of town, is easily iden­ti­fi­able by the pair of rugby posts in the back gar­den.

Me­gan Collins, Locky’s mother and a Kurow na­tive, claims she has scoured the premises for any other trace of Richie’s past but found noth­ing. It is a sim­i­lar story through­out the vil­lage. There is no McCaw mon­u­ment, no tell­tale ex­pres­sion of a noble rugby her­itage be­yond the fact that the main drag has been chris­tened Bledis­loe Street.

About the clear­est nod to the past is found in the fish-and-chip shop. The young McCaw was, by all ac­counts, par­tial to a gen­er­ous help­ing of blue cod here, and a mod­est poster – “McCaw coun­try: grass roots to All Blacks cap­tain” – hangs on the wall in trib­ute.

That he was al­ways ear­marked as a fu­ture im­mor­tal in the black jersey is a mat­ter of some con­tention. McCaw has de­scribed his first Test, a 40-29 vic­tory over Ire­land in Dublin in 2001, as a “ter­ri­ble game”. But the tra­jec­tory to be­com­ing a ‘GAB’ (Great All Black), mapped out by his un­cle Big­gsy on the back of a pa­per nap­kin, was in cer­tain eyes a fate pre­or­dained. Bar­ney McCone was his first coach and a gen­tle­man of the old school, one for whom Richie would al­ways be Richard.

“Although Richard was the only loose for­ward we had, he was ex­tremely tough and a joy to coach,” McCone says. “He was not all that tall, but he was sur­pris­ingly tough and had a great turn of speed. He was the sec­ond fastest run­ner in our team.”

His quick­sil­ver re­flexes, scav­eng­ing for the ball be­fore his team-mates had even thought about it, were in ev­i­dence early. They formed the foun­da­tion of a supreme tac­ti­cal in­tel­li­gence, which has en­abled him as an All Black to stay del­i­cately at­tuned to the latest in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the game’s laws.

Em­bit­tered op­po­nents, out­smarted by him too of­ten, would counter that he plays on the ragged edge of le­gal­ity – “Off­side, Richie,” is a stan­dard re­frain in Aus­tralia – but there is no deny­ing that McCaw is for­mi­da­bly smart.

He could even, ac­cord­ing to a pro­fes­sor at his alma mater of Lin­coln Univer­sity in Can­ter­bury, have made a Rhodes Scholar. “He was not sim­ply an A stu­dent, he was an A-plus stu­dent,” said the tu­tor, who had McCaw in mind for one of the 10 Ce­cil Rhodes bur­saries awarded each year to

‘Richie hasn’t changed a bit. We just sat around the ta­ble and had a nat­ter and a beer’

New Zealand’s bright­est to study at Ox­ford.

Ul­ti­mately, rugby would prove a more pow­er­ful call­ing, but it is in­dica­tive of his aca­demic rigour that he con­tin­ues to casti­gate him­self for scor­ing 99.4 per cent in­stead of 100 in his sixth-form maths exam. He as­cribes the lapse, he dis­closes in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, to a fail­ure of con­cen­tra­tion that he could never for­give on the field.

“Once, the All Blacks were the men of the land,” says Se­nior, who sees McCaw as em­blem­atic of a gen­er­a­tional shift. “They had their job, and rugby as their es­cape. But with pro­fes­sional rugby, there is more of a need to have some­thing else af­ter it. If you look through the

‘Just to see his will­ing­ness to put his body on the line is ex­tra­or­di­nary. He is a bit of a freak’

ranks of the All Blacks, you would be quite sur­prised. Con­rad Smith, the cen­tre, is a trained lawyer. These play­ers are achiev­ing as highly as they are be­cause of their drive, not just in sport but in academia, too.”

This is not to sug­gest that McCaw is about to take up a role as a ge­om­e­try pro­fes­sor once this, his fi­nal World Cup, is over. In­stead, he is more likely to be dis­cov­ered indulging his favourite pas­sion of glid­ing. The North Otago Glid­ing Club would take off from the McCaw clan’s sheep yards, and he has been im­bued his whole life by a love of the South Is­land’s vast skies.

“Omarama, about a 45-minute drive from here, is one of the best places in the world to glide,” Se­nior ex­plains. “I have seen him there a cou­ple of times. It is a very sparse, open en­vi­ron­ment, and the winds and the light form the per­fect con­di­tions.”

McCaw’s side­line in avi­a­tion is also in­formed by the ac­com­plish­ments of his grand­fa­ther, a fighter pi­lot dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, who would shoot down Ger­man V1 mis­siles as they ze­roed in on Lon­don.

If he had a mil­i­tary hero as an an­ces­tor, he con­cluded, he was not about to use glid­ing as a friv­o­lous pas­time. Then again, McCaw has never been one for half-mea­sures in any­thing he un­der­takes.

“Mate, he is such an in­spi­ra­tion,” Dan Carter, his close friend and fel­low All Blacks peren­nial, tells me. “Just to see his work ethic, his will­ing­ness to put his body on the line, is ex­tra­or­di­nary. He is a bit of a freak, to be hon­est.”

For the quiet toil­ers back in Kurow, there is noth­ing freak­ish about it. McCaw, in their es­ti­ma­tion, has har­nessed their un­der­stated virtues and made an un­for­get­table ca­reer out of them. There is, though, one more hon­our he can pro­vide for them be­fore he is done. “How about see­ing him back in the red Kurow shirt, even if only for a half-game?” says Pa­ton, from his sta­tion be­hind the ho­tel bar. “We want to see him out on his home pad­dock again. That would be magic.”

A class apart: Richie McCaw in ac­tion (above); as a pupil at Otago Boys High School (left) and win­ning his 100th cap as his par­ents, Mar­garet and Don­ald, look on

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