After a Jonah Lomu inspired comeback guided the All Blacks to its 13th victory over Ireland in November 2001, then New Zealand coach John Mitchell commented: “That was a great stepping stone in a lot of the boys’ careers.”
Mitchell’s “boys” (New Zealand had 11 debutants between the first two tests of the 2001 Tour against Ireland A and Ireland) came from 21-7 down to dash Ireland’s hopes of a first win. One of the two debutants that started against Ireland that day was Richie McCaw.
Now as captain, he faces another milestone in his career against Ireland as he, along with Mils Muliaina, will become the most capped All Black players of all time with 93 test caps on Saturday.
“I remember a bit,” said McCaw of his first cap. “I hadn’t played much rugby before going on that Tour. I wanted to make sure and prove that I deserved to be there. It was a pretty awesome experience to run out for the first time in a test match, and at a place like Lansdowne Road was pretty special. So I’ve got pretty good memories of it,” says the man of the match from that day.
The current crop of All Blacks boasts Dan Carter, McCaw and Sonny-Bill Williams, whose debut last incredible performance in his second test against Scotland catapulted him into a legend in the making. But the ‘01 team was far from its distant poorer cousin with the likes of Jonah Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens and Anton Oliver (as captain) pulling the strings.
“I thought geez, this is a horrible way to start test rugby,” as the All Blacks fell 14 points behind back in 2001. “I remember it was the first time I got to play with Jonah (Lomu) and some of those guys – that was pretty special in itself.
“You can stand there in awe or just get on with it. I was pretty nervous, but once you run out on the field you either get into it or freeze up and I did every attempt I didn’t do the latter. I remember being pretty happy at the end that we got away with a win.”
McCaw has thus far repressed any urge to leave New Zealand for the alluring millions of France, and donning the All Black jersey is still something he holds dear.
“It’s a little bit different,” he says of the feelings now, in comparison to when he first wore the All Black jersey. “But I still love the contest and love the fact you are playing for the All Blacks. If that ever goes, then it is probably time to do something else. Instead of worrying about your own job you are making sure the whole team does well.
“Those are probably the nerves you have at times. I still make sure not to take for granted the fact that I am playing for the All Blacks because one day that will be gone and you don’t just want to appreciate it then.”
Ireland conceded three penalties in McCaw’s first 80 minutes of international rugby – none of which were in their own half. That same discipline will be required come Saturday evening, as Ireland needing its big players to step up to the challenge.
“I think when we look at the Irish team, there are a lot of guys that have been through those periods (winning a Grand Slam in ‘09 and Triple Crowns in ‘04, ‘06, ‘07 and ‘09) and they are still playing good rugby – no doubt. Especially those guys in the backs, O’Gara, D’Arcy and O’Driscol – they have played a lot of rugby and they are pretty classy.
“In the second half when we played in New Zealand in June, we started to give them a bit of an easy ride and they certainly made us pay for it. Preparing for this week we realised that if we do that again we are going to be in trouble.”
McCaw rejected any comments that the era of Ireland’s so-called ‘Golden Generation’ has come to an end, as he prepares to take on the Irish. After beating England, Jimmy Cowan stated the All Blacks had to move up a gear.
A week later they gave Scotland a humbling in the form of a record defeat. “We have to make sure we are better than last week,” says McCaw, as he attempts to maintain the All Blacks unbeaten record (22 wins, 1 draw and 0 defeats) against Ireland.
The first All Black captain to lose to Ireland is not an accolade the two-time IRB World Player of the Year wishes to add to his collection. “Thanks for bringing that up,” he says. “I don’t want to be (the first captain to lose). End of story.”