Hackles, along with eyebrows and blood pressure, were raised New Zealand wide recently with Robbie Deans’ assertion that Australia’s David Pocock was the greatest openside flanker to play the game.
The reason for such consternation around the small islands at the bottom of the globe? Simple. The All Black number 7 jersey is a sacred thing – it’s the glamour position, worn by the player which children around the country emulate in their backyards and school grounds, and we reckon over the years we’ve produced more than our fair share of fantastic openside flankers. And one of them, in fact probably the best of them all, is still playing today. That man is, of course, Richie McCaw.
Pocock and McCaw should have met this weekend in the final round of Super XV, but with Pocock’s season coming to a premature end through injury the argument about who is the greatest loose forward is left very much open for discussion.
In 2001 then-coach John Mitchell, along with his fellow selectors, saw the inherent potential in a young McCaw, and despite Josh Kronfeld lamenting the ease with which All Black jerseys were being given out, gave the young Canterbury flanker his test debut against Ireland on New Zealand’s end of year tour of the UK. Almost immediately McCaw became the kind of player (like the great Michael ‘Iceman’ Jones before him) that opposition coaches create game plans specifically for, seeing the ability to contain McCaw (which few, if any sides have managed to do on a regular basis) as the key to beating the All Blacks as a whole.
McCaw revolutionised openside play, his innate ability to run great lines, his seemingly bottomless reserves of energy, and his pace around the paddock enabling him to have a huge effect on each and every match he played in. His influence on a weekly basis was such that he soon become at once the most analysed, criticised and idolised player on the planet.
The McCaw we see today is a different player. His top end speed has diminished, and his body is famously battered and broken. But, if anything, his influence on a side is greater now than it ever has been. Any physical toll that years of putting his body on the line has taken on him has been more than compensated for by the experience he has gained, and he has become a player of unparalleled intelligence and instinct.
Put quite simply, without McCaw the All Blacks would not have won the World Cup.
Across the Tasman, Pocock is unquestionably an incredibly talented footballer, and because of this the All Blacks paid him huge respect when the two sides met in last year’s World Cup semi-final at Eden Park. Recognising his ability at the break-down the All Black coaches conceived a plan to take away his ability to scrounge for the ball at rucks – that plan was pretty straight-forward – they ran at him.
By forcing him to make tackles the All Blacks managed to trap him at the bottom of the ruck, negating his ability to stand off and time his entry to the contest, and rendered him virtually totally ineffective for the whole match.
The rest is history, with the All Blacks grinding out a courageous win against the French in the final. So, while Richie McCaw was heroically leading his nation to World Cup glory, Pocock’s influence vanished when simply asked to tackle the other team.
Before we can even consider whether David Pocock is the greatest openside flanker of all time, we need to ask whether he is even the best Australia has produced in recent times. Former NSW flanker Phil Waugh had a low centre of gravity like Pocock, and was incredibly strong and efficient at the break-down, while George Smith probably came closer than anyone else to combatting Richie McCaw.
If Dean’s statement was correct, one would assume that the ‘greatest openside flanker of all time’ would be far superior to anyone else playing against him currently, but McCaw aside, is he even the best loose forward in International Rugby today? The UK has produced some fabulous talent of late, with young Welsh skipper Sam Warburton and robust Irishman Sean O’Brien leading the pack. And in last year’s World Cup South Africans Heinrich Brussow (himself an amazing scavenger at ruck time) and the ever-imposing Schalk Burger were two of the tournament’s most impressive performers. Pocock’s up there, no doubt, but at best I can say that he is in the top 5 or so opensides going round in world rugby at the moment, and one of the best Australia has produced in the last ten or fifteen years.
As for McCaw? The game has changed so much over the years, and it’s impossible to do justice to the players from 50 years or more ago by comparing them to the modern, professional athletes of today. But, personally, if I was picking an all-time greatest All Blacks side McCaw gets the 7 jersey, although there’s still room for the Iceman on the blindside.