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
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