Posted by: cousindampier | 20 November 2015

McCaw’s Final Match

mccaw

Rugby sunk its teeth into me because of Richie McCaw.

In 2011, New Zealand was electric with rugby. Matches of the Rugby World Cup were being hosted throughout the country, and the national team – the All Blacks – were peaking as one of the best teams in the world. They were very likely the best, but while the first decade of the 2000’s left fans optimistic, they were also bracing for a bad match at the wrong time. 2007 was the low point, as the AB’s didn’t make the final four of the RWC for the first time since its inception; by 2010 that changed and they won 15 international matches in a row. They entered the 2011 RWC as one of the favourites.

Even for an American kid who understood little, the themes were apparent. The home team was playing in front of home fans; the pressure was immense. New Zealand is widely recognized as one of the best rugby teams of all time, but they had only won a single World Cup, the inaugural 1987 competition. They were in their prime – veterans who had played with each other through a number of tournaments. They were good – very good – but carried the weight of knowing they were good in a sport in which the bounce of a ball can be devastating.

A loss in front of the home crowd would be shocking, and questions about the direction of the program, justified or not, would arise again.

In America, only soccer and hockey can currently capture the electricity of multinational competition – Soccer has its own world cup, and despite the growing process (and pains) of the America squad, the Football World Cup is one of the single most exciting and dramatic sporting events to watch. Hockey has the Winter Olympics, and with the number of Canadians and Russians in the NHL, it makes the games tense, an American-Canadian match bringing out bad blood and vicious fandom.

American football doesn’t have the same type of drama; the state of Illinois may live or die by the Bears but the rest of the country is apathetic at best. Baseball has its own World Cup, but it does not draw the numbers nor popularity in America that it does in Latin America and Asia. Basketball is growing and now very international, but the American team is too dominant to make international competition that dramatic.

I barely knew what rugby was up until a few weeks before the tournament began, but I was working on a ski resort and there was a bar at the bottom and I could watch rugby and drink beer, surrounded by fans who were smart and passionate and who could answer the questions I had, questions like “Do they were cups underneath the shorts? Those are some short shorts.”

I was in New Zealand, surrounded by Kiwis. Gravitating towards the All Blacks was inevitable, and Richie McCaw was the face of the team. He was on the ads, the interviews; he was shown on tv whenever the All Blacks were playing. He was number seven – good luck and easy to follow, and he was distinct. Between the chest the size of a barn and the somewhat spikey hair, you knew who he was, immediately.

So they won, and I watched it from Nelson in a little bar about 10 minutes walk from the hostel I stayed at and everyone was talking to everyone else, a weight lifted from everybody’s shoulders for though New Zealand, in the end, was the dominant team there was that fear every fan had, almost permeable, that they would blow it. It was smiles and beer and cheers, and the fact that I was there to see it made me part of the club, even if I barely understood why they dived into the endzone – or whatever it was called – after a try.

So I moved back to the States and suddenly Rugby 7’s was on NBC, a faster and quicker and more random game and my dad found it immensely entertaining. I started following Super Rugby – the 15 team league based around New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa – and naturally I gravitated towards the Christchurch Crusaders, largely because of McCaw (the Hurricanes of Wellington and the Otago Highlanders remain beloved teams as well). I stared at my phone on game days, watched as much as I could and even tried to start a rugby blog.

I was hooked.

And then 2015 rolls around and it has been four years since I was in New Zealand and the RWC is happening again and the All Blacks are not old, but they are veteran; McCaw and teammate Dan Carter are probably playing in their last RWC. Suddenly the games are easy to access – I can buy a pass from NBC and watch all the games online and I get to see many of them, Japan’s upset of South Africa and the Wallabies of Australia holding on with 13 men against Wales. The final comes down to New Zealand vs. Australia, little brother vs. big. I awoke early to watch it, and even though New Zealand had an immense halftime lead, it wasn’t safe. Australia roared back.

Richie McCaw played in 148 international matches. I have not seen all of them, but in this final match he seems to be everywhere. Every tackle New Zealand needed to get, he was there. Players needed to protect the ball so it could be cleared, he was there. Setting up a beautiful pass, he was there.

Perhaps I’d finally started to understand the game, to see it better and notice the nuances more, like watching the offensive line in American football or the weakside of the court in basketball. Or maybe McCaw had the game of his life, knowing it was his last despite telling every reporter that it was a decision to be made after the tournament.

On Thursday, he retired. And as much as a 30-year old can thank a sports figure, I thank him. For being an inspiration to work hard and love what you do, but also for being the face of a team, and a nation, which hooked me on my favourite sport, the sport I get the most passionate about and the sport I will stay up until the early hours of the morning watching. It is the sport I get texts about – “I saw that team of yours on tv” – and the sport I crave to learn to play, follow, and someday, somewhere, not only to sit in a bar once more, but to sit in the stands as New Zealand plays in yet another World Cup. And so while Mr McCaw may be retired, among his many, many accolades, a tiny needle in the haystack of things he accomplished during his career, is that he got one more fan into the sport he loved.

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