When creating a list of the greatest players of the past decade there would be a handful of names you would expect to see. These may include Du Preez, Matfield, Carter, Wilkinson and O'Driscoll amongst others. However one name stands clear and would undoubtedly make anyone's list. I am talking about, of course, Richie McCaw.
In 2010 he has reminded us just how good and influential he is in every game he plays. His career has been full of highlights and he holds all sorts of records, including the most tries scored by an All Black forward (19) and the most test caps as captain (52, including 46 wins). His greatness is unquestionable in today's game. But where does he rank amongst the all time greats?
Every All Black team has had its players who have stood out and have the tag greatness attached to them. Pre-World War II we saw the likes of George Nepia, Maurice Brownlie and Billy Stead on top of the world. Through the 1950's-60's the names of Meads, Lochore, Whineray and Clarke all stand out in most people's memories. The 1970's brought us Bryan Williams, Ian Kirkpatrick, Sid Going, and Graham Mourie while the 1980's saw the likes of John Kirwan, Grant Fox, and Buck Shelford rule supreme. The 1990's paved way for a whole lot of great players including Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke, Frank Bunce, Jeff Wilson and the one-of-a-kind Jonah Lomu. In recent years the names of Carter, Umaga and Hayman come to mind along with that of McCaw.
All of these men were exceptionally good in their own time, so how is it then, that we can make comparisons and say that any of them were any better than the others? It is really an impossible task as the game continues to change and the game played now is a very different game to one played 100, 50, 25 or even 10 years ago. It is always easy to remember players from a more recent era and rate them highly, but it's the ones who still have their names mentioned 50 years on that you know are the truly great remembered ones. Therefore, time may be the best judge. It shows just how good the likes of Nepia and Brownlie must have been for people to be still mentioning these men's names when comparing them to current players.
Looking through the list I made above the names that stand out are; Nepia, Meads, Fitzpatrick, Jones, Lomu, and McCaw. All of these men in one way or another changed the game of rugby and had a massive influence on every game they played. For the purposes of this article though, we will focus on just three of these great men as they are the ones who most will lay claim to being the greatest of all time. These being the traditional first choice, Sir Colin Meads, rugby's first global superstart, Jonah Lomu, and the man everyone is trying to find a place for at the moment, Richie McCaw.
We'll start our argument off with Lomu. As far as destructiveness goes, there is no one who even comes close to him. For sheer athleticism you could argue a case for him being the most physically athletic sportsman ever. He was fast, big, strong, and powerful. No one could defend him. Teams that tried to take him one-on-one ended up watching him running over the line. Teams that tried to gang up on him left themselves exposed elsewhere on the field. It's a lose-lose situation. He had an enormous impact on the game and become rugby's first global superstar after bursting onto the scene at the 1995 World Cup at the age of 20. He may not have been the most skillful player in the world, but what he lacked in skill, he made up for in his destructiveness and try-scoring ability. There has never been another player like Lomu and I would be prepared to bet there never will be. Had nature been kinder, who knows what he could have achieved. Taking all this into account, we can safely say that Jonah deserves a spot right near the top of the greatest All Blacks of all time.
Next we will look at Meads. For the past 30 or so years, he has been widely considered the best All Black of all time. For a New Zealander, when asked who the greatest All Black of all time is, nearly all will reply with the same answer of Sir Colin 'Pinetree' Meads. This is impressive in itself. But looking at the argument from a skeptical point of view, it does have its weaknesses. The problem is, that it has become such a widely accepted belief that Meads is the greatest ever, many people now say that he is without having ever seen the man play or knowing what made him so great. In essence, the Meads legend has been built up over time and has tended to snowball as more and more people begin to hold the belief that he is indeed the best to ever wear the black jersey. It is almost as if people these days are scared to say anyone else is better.
That's not to say that the argument for Meads doesn't have it's merits. There is no doubt that he was indeed a fine player. He's often been described as hard as nails. A true warrior of the game, never backing down from a challenge and always leaving everything on the park. He was a huge man in his time and his sheer presence instilled fear into his opponents. The fact that he was around at the same time as other great locks Frik Du Preez and Willie John McBride and still be talked about as great shows that the man was indeed a colossus.
Whether or not he was the greatest All Black of all time is purely a matter of opinion. But I think we should take some time to examine the facts before jumping to conclusions that he is.
Now, to try to compare McCaw's greatness to that of Lomu and Meads. This is hard firstly because McCaw is still playing and we can't examine his whole career. Secondly it is easy to look at current or recent players and label them as great without realising that there are players in every era like this.
I believe however, that McCaw has gone past this. His impact on the game is huge. He rarely has a bad game, and not only this, he rarely doesn't have a good game. His work rate is phenomenal and has the ability to effect turnovers like no other player has ever done in the history of the game. His leadership qualities also improve his argument, captaining the All Blacks to 46 wins from 52 games. One might say that he had a good team, but to me this only strengthens the argument for McCaw. The fact that he stands out so much in a team full of other superstars shows just how great a player he is.
The one blemish on his record is that he has never won a World Cup. Whether this matters or not comes down to your personal opinion, but to me, if the All Blacks win the World Cup next year, it won't make McCaw any better or any worse a player should they lose.
Does his name belong up there with Meads and Lomu? Or even with that of Fitzpatrick, Jones, or Nepia? Or does his name fall in the long list of others who were kings of the world in their time but remain unable to break into that all time great list. The answer is really a matter of opinion. To me, time will tell. If we are still talking about McCaw in another 20, 30 or 50 years time, then I think we can safely say that his name deserves it's spot amongst the greatest All Blacks of all time.