Richie McCaw Still World Rugby's Best Openside Flanker

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Richie McCaw Still World Rugby's Best Openside Flanker
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Richie McCaw has been under more scrutiny this year than at any other time in his career. The All Black captain has been one of the most talked about players after the weekend's draw with Australia, with many pundits claiming that he was outplayed, once again, by his opposite, Michael Hooper.

People will see what they want to see, though. To suggest that McCaw's performance on Saturday was anything but sensational would be underselling his contribution. The three-time world player of the year is still the best openside flanker in the world, let alone his own country.

He may no longer be the player he was in the early years of his career. During the first half of his career he made a name for himself as a breakdown specialist, a good link-player and one who would get around the field quickly. He was very much a classical openside flanker.

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In his early years McCaw was very much a classical openside flanker.

As he has grown older and the game has developed, he has changed this approach. He is now a physical player in contact, one who still makes a ton of tackles but also doubles as a strong ball-carrier and is becoming a reasonable option in the middle of the line-out. While he can still pull off the occasional piece of mastery at the breakdown, he is more selective as to when he commits and this is no longer the only staple of his game.

His speed is not what it was, but his anticipatory ability makes up for that. He is a player that will see things before they happen and can cover for the mistakes of others. There are few more intelligent players in the game, both in the lines he runs and in his understanding of the rules, having an uncanny knack of knowing when a ruck has formed and when it has not.

You cannot underestimate his toughness, either. It is rare you will see him go down. When he does he will more often than not get straight back up and he will not let it deter him from going back for more.

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In recent years McCaw has become a more physical player.

Just because his game has changed, does not mean that he is any less effective. 

On Saturday night he was once again the busiest player on the park. His 20 tackles was the most of anyone in the game and shows just how involved he was on defence. In the first half he was particularly prominent, tackling like a demon, getting through twice as much work as anyone else.

Some will point to the penalties he conceded. There is no denying that this is a big black mark against his name. But he should not be written off based on this.

Inevitably there are times when players will make the wrong decision, especially when they have to be made in a split-second. McCaw is no exception. It is worth considering that the All Blacks found themselves on defence for large periods of the second half, too.

During these periods, sometimes you have to take a risk or two to get your team out of trouble. With McCaw being the best breakdown exponent on his team, it was natural that he was the one that would look to take the chance.

Does that mean that he should be blamed for giving away the penalty? If his team had not been on the back foot he most likely would not have found himself in the position where the risk was needed. Surely this needs to be considered as well.

No one got through more work and no one was more important in the All Blacks' brilliant defensive effort than McCaw. While Hooper was more prominent on attack, he was playing outside a pack who were more dominant in the second half and consequently had more ball to work with.

McCaw played a tighter game. The horrible conditions dictated this, as they made it tough for expansive rugby. Seeing as Kieran Read was standing wider, it was hardly prudent to have two loose forwards ranging in this way in these conditions. 

The physicality he brings to the game makes him just as effective playing this way as he is when playing a looser game. No other openside flanker in world rugby can claim to possess the ability to play both styles to the level of McCaw. He is more physical and more aggressive than the others.

This is not to say that others cannot do it well. Hooper no doubt has more than one string to his bow, with an adept running game, along with his strong defensive game and tireless work-rate. But he is largely a player who will flourish in the loose. 

Sam Warburton is a very good defensive player and breakdown specialist, but he is nowhere near McCaw's level in the tight and does not have the same running game. 

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Sean O'Brien is perhaps the next best, an aggressive player, who is a strong ball-carrier and has a real in-your-face type approach. Thierry Dusautoir, is in a similar mould, although he has a higher defensive work rate.

There are undoubtedly some good openside flankers around at the moment. But McCaw's versatility makes him the most valuable.

Not only can he play to different game plans, it gives the selectors more flexibility in who to pick around him, knowing that McCaw can fill multiple roles.

The All Blacks are no longer at a stage where they are as reliant on McCaw as they were five years ago. Sam Cane has emerged as a genuinely good back-up, tackling, running and exploiting the breakdown like a young McCaw did. But he does not have the physical presence of McCaw.

Bringing him into the team would shift the balance of the loose forwards. They would become far looser and would not allow Kieran Read to range the way he does so effectively.

Aside from his versatility, McCaw brings experience and leadership capabilities that cannot be coached in the short-term. He has won everything there is to win in the game and knows how to deal with tough situations. These will be as important as anything going into next year's World Cup. 

The idea that he is over the hill has little substance. 

He has changed his game. There is still no openside flanker in world rugby who can match his versatility, intelligence, experience and leadership. He is still as good as any in the world and remains an important cog in the All Blacks machine going forward.

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