Rugby: Is Richie McCaw the All Blacks' Greatest Openside Flanker of All Time?

Jeff CheshireAnalyst IIAugust 9, 2013

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - AUGUST 21:  Richie McCaw, the All Black captain, celebrater after their victory in the 2010 Tri-Nations match between the South African Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks at the FNB Stadium on August 21, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
David Rogers/Getty Images

Richie McCaw has been the undisputed king of world rugby for the past decade. No player has had a bigger influence on his team's success than the All Black openside flanker and his record remains arguably the best of any player to play the game.

That he is one of the all-time greats in now indisputable. But just how great is he? Is he the greatest openside flanker New Zealand has produced?

While McCaw might currently be flavour of the month, it is important to remember the All Blacks have a long legacy of great openside flankers, each great in his own right and none should be dismissed.

Six that come to mind as being among the very best: Graham Mourie, Waka Nathan, Charlie Seeling, Michael Jones, Josh Kronfeld and of course McCaw.

So which one was the best then? 

Ultimately it is impossible to offer a finite answer. Virtually no one alive can claim to have seen all of these players and without having seen them play, how can one really judge the qualities that made them so influential in their day? 

Of course it is possible to read endless accounts of how good a player was and why they were this way. But then you have to question the credibility of the writer. How tough were they in rating the players? How extensive was their knowledge of the game? Why should a glowing report of Seeling count more than a glowing report of Nathan?

And ultimately, why should McCaw rate higher than these men simply because we have seen how good he is and not so much the others?

There are those who claim McCaw to be the greatest player to ever lace up boots, yet how many of these people can legitimately argue that he was a better player than Nathan? 

Indeed McCaw's record is impressive, as is his skill set. But so was Nathan's. He never lost a Test for the All Blacks, was one of the fastest players around the field and yet  still a strong presence in the physical confrontations.

The same could be said of Seeling, a player renowned for his toughness and strength, whose legacy has lasted over 100 years following his last Test in 1908. If a player is still being talked about a century later, you can be sure they were probably pretty good. 

Those who cite McCaw's leadership as being a defining factor would have to justify this over the leadership offered by Mourie. Mourie's intelligence and captaincy made many average All Black teams good ones, and his influence on the game was undoubtedly huge. Was this more influential than McCaw's leadership? It's hard to say really. 

Perhaps the two players that can best be compared with McCaw are Kronfeld and Jones. 

Both played in eras when the game was not overly dissimilar to McCaw's, albeit different in their own way. Also simply by virtue of the fact that by this stage games were being televised more regularly and the public gets to see them playing regularly.

It is hard to say a bad word about any of three.

Kronfeld was perhaps not quite in the same class as the other two, but at his peak would have rated as highly as any player in the world.

He was the most classical of these three opensides, a scavenger at the breakdown, always looking to steal the ball, and a terrier on defense. In attack he was a very good link player who would run off the shoulders of his backline and support players after a break.

His speed off the mark was excellent too, shutting down the opposition backline by limiting the time the first five-eighth had to make a decision.

Yet you would have to say he never quite reached the level of his predecessor, the great Jones, or his eventual heir, McCaw.

Jones was perhaps the most complete player in the history of the game. His balance and poised running with the ball were uncanny and he had exceptional ball skills, both in handling and kicking. Indeed there is almost no doubt that he could have played in the backline and been one of the legendary backs had he taken that option.

But while he was good in an open game, he also excelled in the tight. His defence was brutal and he didn't mind getting physical. In his latter years he truly mastered the flanker position, shifting to the blindside and becoming one of the best at that position in the history of the game.

He really didn't have a fault. Yet age and injury eventually caught up to him, as it does to everyone.

Which brings us to the current No. 7, McCaw. His main strength has been his versatility and ability to adapt his game over the past 12 years to keep up with changes in the way it is played. 

Early in his career he was more of a classical seven, a master at the breakdown, a tearaway on defense and a good link man. As his career has developed he has become more of a ball-runner, more physical and is now brutal on defense. His intelligence is of the highest class and he is an option in the lineout.

Perhaps his best attribute though is his anticipation, which allows him to cover for the mistakes of others. It has bailed out the All Blacks on numerous occasions over the years.

The one thing McCaw has over Jones is his leadership qualities, having captained the All Blacks since 2006 and winning everything there is to win in that time. 

His record is the most compelling of all the candidates too: 102 wins from 116 tests, a World Cup, a handful of Tri-Nations and Rugby Championships, 10 Bledisloe Cup victories, three Grand Slams and three IRB Player of the Year awards. 

However, you have to consider that there is far more rugby played in the modern era, players are better conditioned, can play for longer and now that they are now professionals  do not have to worry about holding down a job as the other five players in this article did for some or all of their careers.

Who was better out of Jones and McCaw? Perhaps it would just be a case of who they had around them, what the conditions were like, what type of game you wanted to play. Both had their strengths and to say one was better than the other is near impossible. Indeed, multiple observers have made arguments for both players being the greatest All Black of all time.

The truly great players are the ones who can influence a game by themselves on a consistent basis. Not just contribute to a team, or finish off a move, but one who is the large determining factor in their team's success.

These players did this in one way or another, each in their own way. All six were/are truly great All Blacks, and to say one is greater isn't possible. It diminishes the achievements of those who came before them, and it is an insult players who bled for their country to be dismissed simply because he did not receive the same amount of exposure as a current great.

We are always looking for the next great thing in every walk of life. It is human nature, we want to believe that what we are seeing is better than what anyone else saw. When that is gone, we want it to happen again, so we make tireless comparisons between the current superstars to legends of the past.

But ultimately it is an impossible exercise. If you are going to use the term 'all-time' then that encapsulates anyone who has ever played the game and to compare between two eras is a task that is simply too subjective. It's hard enough coming to a consensus on who the best players in each position in the current game.

So McCaw is undeniably one of the great New Zealand openside flankers, perhaps even the best. But then so could be Jones, or Nathan, while Mourie, Seeling and Kronfeld have to be right up there too. They were all great players, so why not just leave it at that?

But of course the search for greatness goes on and it always will. Just don't dismiss the greatness of those who have already been.