Sir Clive Woodward was in no doubt. He called it ‘a mind blowing achievement, in anybody’s language, in any sport.’ Steve Hansen, the New Zealand coach, put some flesh on the bone: ‘he can go into those dark places that you have to go to, to perform over and over again.’
The man Hansen was talking about was sitting a few feet away, head slightly bowed as if in embarrassment, and he was sporting an ugly black eye, bruised and swollen and almost closed. Mind you, for Richie McCaw the All Blacks’ captain, a shiner is about the best you can hope for during a match spent in and around the scrum.
Woodward and Hansen were reflecting on McCaw’s hundredth victory in All Black colours, brought up in Soweto during New Zealand’s 32-16 victory over South Africa last Sunday week. McCaw is just one point in a continuum that stretches back decades and, no doubt, will march on, but even by the standards of New Zealand rugby, and by the standards of the great flankers who came before him, his achievement is incredible: just twelve defeats amongst those hundred victories, the first man in rugby to achieve such a milestone.
What makes it more staggering is McCaw’s position as an openside flanker. As scavengers for possession in and around the rucks and the mauls, they are often faced with fifty-fifty balls and therefore a need to put their bodies on the line with little thought to the consequences. Injuries in this position are a fact of life, as one look at Sam Warbuton’s most recent Six Nations campaign would suggest: he missed one half of the Ireland match, the whole of the Scotland and Italy games, and the second half of the Grand Slam decider against France, so that he received the Trophy one-handed, the other shoulder being in a sling.
Some years ago, McCaw talked in matter of fact fashion about the physical nature of his trade, about how he had split each eyebrow up to thirty times and each cheekbone half a dozen times; about how the staple gun- bang, bang- now meant less time off the field going through the laborious process of stitching. ‘It’s one of the hazards of my position; you learn to deal with it.’
But- and coming from a sport with no physical contact I am quite certain of this- not everyone could. McCaw’s achievements, then, are a good counterpoint to the prevailing notion in sport science that practice and preparation can override everything and given enough of it, excellence is open to everyone. Ten thousand hours might make you play a decent cover drive, or top-spin lob, but it won’t take you into the dark places where McCaw and his ilk go time and again. Pain is something you cannot prepare for, nor can you know how you will react to it.
How many, for example, could have done what McCaw did during the recent World Cup? In his autobiography, published this week, he talked of how he played throughout the latter stages of the tournament with a broken foot. He refused to allow his foot to be x-rayed because he knew it was broken and contented himself instead with painkillers; he refused to tell his coaches the extent of the injury (‘I just kept telling them I’d be alright’) and around the rest of the team and the media he’d have to grit his teeth to try to walk normally so as to not give away any clues. ‘It’s like stepping on a red-hot lump of coal,’ he remembered. And then he stepped on that coal again and again, against Australia in the semi-final, and France in the final.
Mental strength is the Holy Grail for sports psychologists who work with professional teams. They reckon it to be, often, the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t, between the good and the great, and the great and the immortal. Academic studies broadly agree on the definition: a natural or developed edge that enables an athlete to cope better with pressure, combined with a willingness to push back the boundaries of stress whilst still maintaining technique and effort.
Some years ago, sports psychologists in English cricket keen to study ‘mental strength’ asked county cricketers who they regarded as the mentally strongest players amongst them. Interviews were sought and conducted and the findings published, in the hope that what made a player ‘tough’ could be digested, distilled and spread around.
But for the most physical sports, of which rugby is surely one, there is an extra dimension required. It wasn’t immediately apparent that McCaw was going to be one of the all-time greats. Not, at least, to Josh Kronfeld who, before, McCaw was thought to be New Zealand’s greatest ever openside flanker. When McCaw was given what many thought to be a premature debut, Kronfeld was quoted as saying: ‘you might as well just give All Black jerseys to everybody.’
The notion that some people are just special doesn’t sit well with those who believe that sporting greatness is open to everyone with the time and willingness to have a go. But not everyone can visit the dark places again and again that have taken McCaw from the uncertain beginnings that Kronfeld saw to the pinnacle of his sport. Some sportsmen are born just a little different. I’d wager McCaw is one of those.
At first glance there were no links between the humble service at St Matthew’s church in Little Lever, Bolton, last Monday and the glamour of the franchised Champions League currently taking place in South Africa. Harry Pilling pre-dated Twenty20 by two decades and more and was a staunch one club man- a Lancastrian through and through- as signified by the blue cloth cap, adorned with a blooming red rose that travelled with his coffin.
But when observers get sniffy about the opportunities offered the modern day player, which, by necessity, involve a more fluid approach to contractual affairs, then they would do well to remember the struggles that Pilling had to contend with both during and after his distinguished playing career.
For professionals of Pilling’s era, the pay was poor and the winters were long. Despite being considered to be on the fringes of international cricket, he was forced to work variously during the winters as a coffin salesman, apprentice butcher, toolmaker, coalman, lorry driver and, unbelievably, an ‘umbrella handle putter-onner.’ Life continued to be more difficult than it should have been after his retirement, largely caused by alcoholism which was a constant companion.
As a key part of Lancashire’s three-time Gillette Cup winning team, it is likely Pilling would have taken to the shortest form of the game. One thing is for sure, though, he would have envied the opportunities afforded the cricketers of Yorkshire and Hampshire in recent days before the long winter chill sets in.
The history of sport is littered with so many scandals the conclusion must be that temptation, money and human nature are a deadly combination. Over the years, and in recent days, there have been many stories told which give a far greater understanding of why athletes are drawn to take drugs or money to underperform: the bullying, the greed, and the culture that pervades a team or a sport.
Too little, though, has been revealed of how those who succumb to temptation deal with themselves in the years that follow. I have often wondered how those cricketers of the 1990s who were not caught fixing made peace with themselves- if they ever did.
Of all the hundreds of thousands of words spilt over the Lance Armstrong scandal, the most poignant, I felt, came from Christophe Bassons, the Mr. Clean, whose non-cooperation led to his exile and premature retirement from cycling.
‘I don’t feel bitter at all,’ he said this week. ‘I think if you were to compare the situations today of both Lance Armstrong and myself, you might ask who is the happiest, who is the most content, who feels the best about themselves and what they did. I certainly don’t have any regrets. Lance Armstrong cannot be feeling very comfortable today.’
Young sportsmen are given plenty of guidance by sporting authorities to think about the temptations on offer, whether that be drugs to compete or money to underperform. If Bassons’ words were pinned to the notice board of every changing room in every professional sport, you would think that would suffice. What he was saying, in essence, is that a life in sport is only a fraction of a life lived.