The Greatest All Black. Arguably Richie McCaw. I can’t comment on past All Blacks. I jumped into Rugby with two feet, but I only jumped in 4 years ago. As far as national heroes go, Richie is it. I’m sure America has national heroes but I’m hard pressed to name them. New Zealand’s size lends itself to local heroes because the whole country at times feels local. I like that. There’s something unifying about that.
It’s no secret that I love rugby. We are a rugby family. Maybe it was my need to feel passionately, get caught up in something bigger or maybe it’s the fact that rugby is a winter sport and I had to have something to take my mind off the cold. Who knows? But I love it. I love reading about rugby players, following their tweets on twitter and watching any game I can.
But Richie, Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain is something special. He knows he’s a hero and he seems to take his job as hero very seriously. He’s always an All Black. He knows people are watching. But more impressive he realises kids are watching. It comes with the job. Let’s be real, there are plenty of words that fly out of his mouth on the rugby field I hope Max never says. But it’s Richie’s heart and passion that inspire me.
Richie carried the weight of the New Zealand psyche on his back for four years. If you are an American it’s hard to describe what losing at rugby does to you, to the nation. I surely didn’t get until the final of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. I spent three years up to this point seeing the All Blacks dominate most opponents. Let’s be honest, it’s fun to be the winning team. And to be fair Kiwi’s often take a different approach, than shall we say, the Americans. After four years this is what I notice. Americans go into sporting events expecting to win (even if they shouldn’t). “Go big or go home.” Kiwi’s go in hoping not to lose. It sounds the same but it’s not.
I never understood that approach and really, I still don’t, but I do have an emotional connection to that approach now. My husband and I sat nervously on the couch as the New Zealand anthem roared, the Haka was finished and the whistle blew. And then I understood. I saw the world’s best rugby team struggle. What?!? I ate chocolate nervously as I watched France creep up ready to pounce on the world title. And I all of a sudden no longer hoped for the win I just prayed we didn’t lose.
It was the most torturous 80 minutes I have ever endured. I think four million people didn’t breathe until that final whistle blew. The whole country breathed a collective sigh of relief as the time went from 5…4…3…2…1…Full Time! They had done it. Our All Blacks had won the World Cup.
It was a nation’s victory. But here’s why I hold Richie McCaw as a hero. Four years earlier when New Zealand was knocked out in the quarter finals (ironically by the same team they had just beat, France) Richie carried the nation’s loss, anger, judgement and bitterness on his shoulders. And he took it on with grace and dignity. I read Richie’s book, and was mesermized by the controversy surrounding the loss. But I was gobsmacked by Richie’s response to it. The coach looked at Richie and said something along the lines of walk out there with your head up, take it on the chin, no one is going to care about what we think is unfair. Immediately after the loss New Zealand media was crucifying the coach and Richie, as he was a new and young captain that had just ruined the nation by losing. It sounds dramatic, but this is the sole time Kiwi’s are ever dramatic and they rival even me at my most dramatic when it comes to Rugby.
Richie walked out to the media and did just what his coached recommended. He took the massive hit to the chin, a punch that would level most men, from the country he played for and loved. To be misunderstood is my biggest weakness. It leads me to anger, spewing comments I often regret and over-sharing hoping to convince people what I actually feel or think or what are the correct version of events, according to me. So you see, watching Richie’s reaction the night they won the World Cup and not realising what had transpired four years early, I became in awe of who he was and how he carried himself once I knew. I had no idea what pressure he was under. I had no idea he wasn’t playing to redeem himself, but still loyally only playing for the love of the game and his nation. I would have been playing to show everyone they were wrong, so I could say a big fat “I told you so!” But when the whistle blew in 2011 there was a moment. It was so quick it would have been easy to miss, but I caught it. Maybe because I’m still a bit of an outsider to the New Zealand psyche. I had no doubt the All Blacks would win, yet sitting with four million people that night I began to waver. Then it happened. It was done and cheers were about to explode in the stadium and throughout the entire country, but one second perhaps even a millisecond marked me and I wouldn’t know why until I read his book. Richie smiled. I hadn’t seen him smile for four years. He did his media duty and moved his mouth upwards, but he never really smiled. That smile told a story that night; a story of the last four years. It was full of relief, elation, pride and gratefulness that he could bring the World Cup home. I hope he felt a little joy that he proved everyone wrong, he didn’t choke, but honestly in that moment I didn’t see that. It was pure joy. The crowd erupted, the players screamed with elation, hugs and pats on the back filled the country. It was a great moment to be a Kiwi. Yet I will never forget that split second where Richie smiled.
It was worth it. Keeping his mouth shut, not defending himself, taking a lot of media abuse on the chin, it was all worth it. Richie was classy and a role model I would want my boy to follow. He put his head down, worked hard and kept doing what he loved: playing rugby becoming the greatest All Black of all time. He had done it. I’m sure if he would have handled it different and the All Blacks had won Richie still would have been celebrated, but his composure throughout the four years left the country saying “that guy’s a good bloke” ( the highest compliment a male can give another male in New Zealand).
He’s a hero not just because he won a World Cup but because he handled himself with humility, dignity and a graciousness after it was all said and done. He worked hard to push negative very loud voices out of his head and still played for noble reasons. Rugby is everything in New Zealand. He brought joy to the nation without tarnishing it by being a jerk about the pressure and comments that were placed on him.
I’m glad we won. I love being a part of the winning team. But now I know more of the history and story I’m ecstatic we won. I hope a little of Richie rubs off on me while I live in New Zealand. My little boy “plays Richie” on a regular basis and I couldn’t be prouder.