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'I was just running on instinct, I didn't want to stuff it up': Old, wise McCaw still wary of over-thinking the biggest games

The captain is ready to get more battle scars to reach a second consecutive World Cup final.

OVER AND OVER again, you’ll hear people saying the same thing about the great leaders in sport.

They separate themselves in similar ways, they do simple things brilliantly and they bring the most out of every player around them.

As Richie McCaw nears the end of his Test career, it’s nigh on essential to look back 140-odd caps to the beginning, when McCaw was a pesky upstart rocketing to the top of New Zealand rugby, as opposed to the deity that currently straddles it.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - New Zealand Captains Run - Twickenham Stadium Source: Mike Egerton

Yesterday, his coach Steve Hansen painted a picture where established All Blacks were getting riled by young Richie’s innate spoiling ability at the breakdown. McCaw and the old heads were warned to ease off a bit from either side. But it must have been more difficult for the flanker. Instinct is instinct.

“When I was making my debut, I was just running on pure instinct and didn’t really understand what I was going into, and didn’t want to stuff it up,” says McCaw.

With each passing cap and the captaincy handed over from Tana Umaga, McCaw came to realise that his talents were taking care of themselves, and he was able to hone that most important skill of leaders, affecting everyone around him.

As you gain experience along the way, you understand that you can have an impact on the people around you. You’re not just worried about yourself.

“With the captaincy role, you’ve got more than just playing yourself. It’s about helping the men around you. We’ve got a senior player group that all do that. I sometimes wonder how I actually managed to function at all back then.

“You do it on energy and excitement, and I think that’s a good reminder that you probably over-think the game at times when you’ve been around a while. You probably over-think it, but if you’ve got the attitude and desire to go out and play with a bit of instinct and use the knowledge you’ve picked up, then you can do a pretty good job.”

McCaw is one of a host of old-stagers attempting to force their will on tomorrow’s semi-final. Four years after his retirement, Victor Matfield has managed only a place among the replacements, but there will still be a dozen men starting the game counting over 70 caps-worth of experience. Of course, none more than the Kiwi captain’s 146:

!Just cos you’ve been around a while, it doesn’t always mean you’re the right guy to be picked. For us, there’s a few of us that have been around for years, but we’ve still go to earn our spot on the team.”

That much is evidenced by the presence of Nehe Milner-Skudder winning his seventh Test cap, Joe Moody on his 10th while the Springboks’ centre partnership total just 20 between them.

“I think that’s one thing that you hold right at the top.” McCaw continues, “if you’re doing that, then by all means the experiences of being in tough moments and understanding what it takes, that’s where the experience you want to draw out of the guys.

“I can’t speak too much for them, but a guy like Victor (Matfield) played a hell of a lot of rugby at a high level and still is. I can understand why he’s picked, but you’ve still got to do a job.”

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - New Zealand Captains Run - Twickenham Stadium McCaw warms up with his openside protege Sam Cane. Source: Mike Egerton

It was noticeable last Saturday night that, after steam-rolling France, most of the All Blacks cruised out of the Millennium Stadium with barely a mark on them. All except McCaw whose face took the brunt of Louis Picamoles frustration.

McCaw knows how annoying he is to play against, his team-mates used to tell him in no uncertain terms. When asked about Picamoles post-match he simply nodded a bright red and scarred face, noted that the referee had dealt with it and that punishment had already been handed out in the form of the tries his side scored while France defended with 14.

Tomorrow’s clash will be one more battle for the everlasting McCaw, one more chance to to swap physical punishment for Kiwi success.

If I get another scar from it, that’s just part and parcel. Being in that environment and playing that sort of opposition with that intensity is why you play the game. If we get the job done, I’ll take any scar that comes along with it.”

Ever eager to talk up the importance of the fundamentals, McCaw picked out a 2008 win over the Springboks as his favourite memory. The classics played out over recent years were overlooked in the captain’s mind and a solid 19 – 0 pushed to the forefront.

That makes plenty of room for a new favourite.

“But I wouldn’t mind, if you asked me this question on Monday, that I say ‘Saturday.’”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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