|Leader of the pack: McCaw has won 57 of his 65 Tests as captain but the World Cup is still to be earned [GALLO/GETTY]|
Two men from very different corners of the world will lead their teams out at Eden Park on Sunday for what each will hope is the crowning moment of his career.
Richie McCaw will captain New Zealand in the final of Rugby World Cup 2011, while the man aiming to stop the All Blacks from winning the tournament on home soil is the French skipper, Thierry Dusautoir.
McCaw, 30, was born in the countryside outside Oamaru in Otago province, one of the South Island’s rugby heartlands.
You could easily miss his little town of Kurow, signposted inland from State Highway 1 in the 360km stretch between Dunedin and Christchurch, unless your passenger happened to be from New Zealand and mumbled “Richie McCaw country” as you drove past.
Dusautoir, 29, comes from the industrial city of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, and has an Ivorian mother and a French father.
This week he was nominated for the IRB world player of the year award – despite only beginning to play rugby at the age of 16. He is one win away from leading France to a first World Cup trophy.
The captains spoke of their mutual admiration on Saturday as they met the media for the last time before the match. And both had a simple message: the World Cup final is just an opportunity that has to be taken.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for the way he plays, especially how he influences the guys around him,” said McCaw, who has won the world player of the year title three times during his 102-cap Test career.
“We’ve had different roads getting to the final.
“The boys are motivated, they’re excited. But we’re up against a team that will be exactly the same and it’s about doing the job for 80 minutes.
|Dusautoir is clapped off the Eden Park pitch after grinding out a one-point win over Wales [GALLO/GETTY]|
“A lot of guys have been through one, if not two experiences that haven’t been too flash, and you’d like to think that just hardens the resolve and the desire.”
That desire is strong in an All Blacks team that has consistently failed to produce in the World Cup.
Since winning an embryonic tournament in 1987, they have been to just one final, and experienced painful exits to the French in 1999 and 2007.
Their only World Cup wins over France came in the first tournament, in the bronze match in 2003, and in the pool stages this year.
“From my point of view, what happened back in 2003, I never understood what it took to win a World Cup,” said McCaw.
“Perhaps I didn’t fully understand again in ’07, but in those experiences you realise that to win it you’ve got to be the best team in that tournament regardless of what’s happened beforehand, and you’ve got to produce the goods when it counts.
“I think a lot of the guys that have been around a while understand that. There’s absolutely no guarantees.”
New Zealand have stormed to the final, winning all their matches and playing the best rugby of any team. France have lost twice – to the All Blacks and to Tonga – and scraped through their semi-final against Wales, winning 9-8 against a side that played with 14 men for most of the match.
Ill temper and petulance have dogged their tournament.
Coach Marc Lievremont quelled what appeared to be a mini-revolt during the group stages, and the players didn’t take kindly to being called “spoilt brats” by the former finalist, after they refused his request not to go out and celebrate after beating the Welsh.
“There are 15 problems on the pitch tomorrow and not necessarily Richie McCaw. I have great respect for him, but the list would go on and on if I had to mention all the players that I respect”
Thierry Dusautoir, France captain
Dusautoir has been excluded from that criticism, with Lievremont making a point of praising the blindside flanker’s attitude compared to the rest of the squad.
On Saturday, Dusautoir said that the controversy meant nothing in the context of the job at hand.
“All children dream of being world champion and we are going back to our dreams this week,” he said.
“The desire is there and what we need to be doing is making the most of this opportunity we have been given.”
He also recognised the challenge posed by McCaw, who is the best openside flanker – indeed, the best player – in the world. But the final will not be won by focussing on individuals.
“There are 15 problems on the pitch tomorrow and not necessarily Richie McCaw,” said Dusautoir.
“He is a legend in this sport and he has more than 100 caps for the All Blacks, and he has captained them for six or seven years now.
“I have great respect for him, but the list would go on and on if I had to mention all the players that I respect.”
McCaw is the most experienced New Zealand captain in history, was the first All Black to reach 100 caps, and has 57 wins in 65 matches as captain – more than any other skipper.
He is already a hero in his homeland and abroad – radio stations have been broadcasting poems about him this week – and such is the position rugby holds in Kiwi hearts, he is likely to reach near-mythological status if he lifts the Webb Ellis Cup on Sunday.
|McCaw at training in Auckland the day before leading the All Blacks into the World Cup final [GALLO/GETTY]|
“Being captain of the All Blacks, it’s a huge honour for starters, but there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it,” he said.
“The expectation is that you set the standards that have been forged over a long period of time, and I guess I’ve got to – along with the coaches – drive that, and you’ve still got to go out and be a top player.
“I look at it as a huge privilege every time you take the field. But you better go do the job, and I guess having the right men around you to drive those standards and that attitude is the key.
“I won’t be around forever, but hopefully when I leave one day people will see that all the history that has gone before, all the standards that have been set, have been upheld if not raised.”
The Webb Ellis Cup would look natural in McCaw’s hands. But for all his achievements, it is still there to be won or lost.
If the All Blacks fall at the final hurdle again, it could remain free of his fingerprints for good.
“I don’t think you should touch it till you’ve earned it,” he said, when asked if he had given the trophy an experimental heft.
“We’ve got guys who are good enough but that means nothing.
“It’s not about who-deserves-what. It’s about who goes out and plays that game.”