Arguably the greatest rugby player of the professional era has announced he will take a six-month sabbatical from rugby at the beginning of 2013. In this, Richie McCaw will miss the majority of the Super 15 and also the All Blacks' home test series against France in June, as was reported by TVNZ.
The move is a bid intended to prolong his career and see him through to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
This may be a fairly optimistic aim, with the 31-year-old having taken his fair share of knocks over an illustrious 11-year career which has left his body battered. By taking a sabbatical it is hoped he will be able to freshen up and last another two-and-a-half years in the black jersey.
Many have questioned McCaw’s ability to continue to play at the top level, saying he is now past his best and has been surpassed by another youngster across the Tasman as the world’s best open-side flanker.
However, if McCaw’s recent performances in the Rugby Championship are anything to go by this is far from the case; he's been playing some of the best rugby of his career over the past month.
He may no longer have quite the same impact at the breakdown as he did in his younger years. Whilst he is still capable of snaffling the ball from his unsuspecting foe, this is no longer the sole focus of his game as he has developed into an all-around player.
He is now a strong ball-runner, a tough defender and an option at lineout time. There have been few open-side flankers in the history of the game that can claim to have mastered all of these skills, and is really what separates McCaw from the rest.
His leadership too will continue to be of great value to the All Blacks, as they look to blood a handful of new players, all of whom will benefit from McCaw’s guidance.
Of course there are the likes of Kieran Read, Keven Mealamu and Conrad Smith, who could be called upon to lead the side. But none carry the same mana of McCaw and none have the same experience in the role.
If he was to carry on in this way through to 2015, he would undoubtedly boost the All Blacks' chances of becoming the first country to successfully defend the Rugby World Cup.
In saying this, there also needs to be care taken that McCaw isn’t being clung onto for his iconic status.
Whilst he has been a great player and continues to be, the time will come when he is surpassed by another. Should this time come before the 2015 World Cup then it may well be that the All Blacks will have to have another, possibly Sam Cane, filling the No. 7 jersey.
To already be planning to have him in the team for 2015 is a dangerous mentality to get into, and it must be ensured that when the time comes he really does deserve his place in the team.
Either way, the man deserves his break. He has been a loyal servant to his country since his debut in 2001, winning everything there is to win in the game. If this is enough to see him through another three years of top-class rugby, there will be few New Zealanders who would object.
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