August’s Australia – New Zealand Rugby Championship test was a milestone for Richie McCaw with him winning his 140th test match cap. From the land that produced great open sides such as Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say McCaw is the greatest of them all.
McCaw epitomises the modern openside; aggressive at the tackle, strong over the ball at the ruck and with the sort of stamina that means he is still first to the ball after 80 minutes of a test match.
He has his detractors though. Many rugby watchers bemoan the more cynical side to his play and perhaps this is a symptom of wider dissatisfaction with modern rugby, where the emphasis is more on preventing free flowing rugby rather than being positive and creating something.
This would be an unfair analysis of McCaw’s strengths though and one that doesn’t fully appreciate what he brings to the game. As we will see through the eyes of this test match McCaw provides a positive influence in a number of areas. We will also look at a few of the darker arts he employs to disrupt opposition ball and slow the game down when needed.
First of all let’s look at some his main creative strengths.
Supporting running lines
New Zealand have long been applauded for their ability to support a runner in space, whether this be to provide an option for a pass or to clean out a ruck and so allow another attack to begin. McCaw has a key role in this regard for the All Blacks with his job usually being to be the first forward at the breakdown to secure the ruck.
With 6 minutes on the clock New Zealand have a scrum from which they will attack out wide. Watch the running line of McCaw to the point where the tackle is made.
McCaw manages to get to the tackled player as the tackle is made by taking a running angle that doesn’t follow the ball but follows where he thinks the tackle will be made.
In the still below you can see that he takes an arcing run that is directed towards the top left corner of the screen where he anticipates he will be needed. He doesn’t follow the ball.
There are two key aspects here. Firstly McCaw should have received some communication that the ball is going wide off first phase and that is where he should head.
Secondly, McCaw needs to assess the situation and trust his outer backs to get over the gain line and make good ground. As soon as McCaw doubts this will happen he will change his line which could mean he doesn’t make the tackle area in time.
Here is another example with 11 minutes on the clock. As Milner-Skudder starts to run the ball back McCaw anticipates his angle of run and gets in to a superb position to keep the move alive:
What McCaw is great at doing is reading and anticipating what is going to happen next which gives him the time to get in to position. In this example he realises that there is a 3 on 2 situation and also that Milner-Skudder is up against Stephen Moore, the Aussie hooker. At best Milner-Skudder will get around Moore, at worst he is tackled and the ball moves wide to the two supporting All Blacks.
If you look at McCaw’s body angle you can see he is already heading up the field ready for the next phase of place. Contrast this with the body positions of his front row colleagues Franks and Woodcock [insert your own jokes about front row players and brains here].
Running with ball in hand
It is often overlooked but McCaw is also a good ball carrier whether this be in open play or in close contact driving phases near the opposition try line.
With 32 minutes on the clock he is slipped the ball and makes 10 metres upfield before presenting the ball for another quick All Black attack.
Darker arts and the cloak of invisibility
This is perhaps not the best game to show McCaw’s attributes at the breakdown given he was mostly nullified by the Australian forwards and in particular the fact they played with two opensides to counter McCaw’s strengths.
What this game did show though were a few of McCaw’s tricks to slow the Australian ball down and prevent the All Blacks from being exposed. Given the key to attacking rugby is a fast ball recycle anything McCaw can do to slow the ball presentation down will be valuable in giving his team mates time to reorganise the defence.
The first aspect to note about McCaw’s darker arts is that he only tends to use them when Australia are attacking the All Black line and he senses there could be trouble. In this respect he is happier to give away a 3 point penalty than a 7 point try and conversion. In this respect McCaw, and New Zealand generally, are very cynical and should be punished more by referees.
There are 3 different techniques he adopted in this game we will focus on.
Collapse of rolling maul and in the side
A few minutes after half time a promising Australian rolling maul was set up.
As the Aussies build up momentum McCaw senses this so attempts two illegal moves to stop it. Firstly he attacks the front-most Australian in the maul by tackling his legs; a cynic would accuse him of trying to bring the maul down (see screen print below and McCaw on the far left).
This approach fails to he tries to drive across the maul and splinter it; again an illegal move.
Body falls on wrong side of ruck
This is one technique used to slow the ball that McCaw excels at. In this clip Polota-Nau with the big hair takes the ball in to contact. He is tackled by one of the All Blacks and McCaw joins by putting his body on the Australian side of the contact area.
By placing himself at that angle in the tackle McCaw knows that when the bodies fall to the ground he is going to have to move, but even this split second will buy his team more time to arrange themselves defensively.
The still below shows how his body is now falling on the Aussie side; which is what he intended as he hit the tackle area. Cynical but very clever given referees will generally allow defenders a split second to move away.
In at the side of the ruck
Another McCaw favourite. With New Zealand winning and 66 minutes on the clock the Australians start to attack through the centre of the pitch.
In this example watch how McCaw ignores the gate (the back foot of the ruck on the All Black side) and blatantly comes in to the ruck from the side. Stephen Moore has to clear him out which buys the defense those vital few moments to re-organise.
In the still McCaw is half way down the ruck on the opposite side. Wayne Barnes has a good view of the entry position and allows it to continue.
McCaw – one of the best?
Undoubtedly we are witnessing one of the great back row players of all time. He receives most of the plaudits for the destructive aspects of his game but there is a lot more to his skills than people give him credit for.
He is illegal in a lot of the things that he does close to the All Black line but this is not something we can criticise him for; he plays to the referee’s whistle as we are all told to do from a young age!