The selection of a 20-year-old Richie McCaw raised a few eyebrows in 2001, none more so than one of New Zealand’s own recently retired opensides – Josh Kronfeld.
The former Otago number 7 doubted whether one season of NPC for Canterbury was enough for McCaw to truly be ready for international rugby, saying they were ‘giving All Black jerseys out too easily’.
“It seems incredible to me that they so easily can put No 7s in … now they’ve got a guy off one NPC season,” Kronfeld said of McCaw’s selection.
McCaw answered his doubters with a man-of-of-the-match performance on debut against Ireland at Lansdowne Road, in a fitting debut that was the ideal start of a historic 148-cap test career.
Writing a preview for the Irish Times ahead of his first test, journalist John O’Sullivan described McCaw as bringing a ‘huge reputation’ ahead of the game.
“Brings a huge reputation from New Zealand as an outstanding prospect. A genuine seven, he is the man charged with allowing the All Blacks to play the type of game that coach John Mitchell wants,” he wrote.
The young McCaw was industrious without being totally dominant, putting on two important cover tackles early on Brian O’Driscoll who threatened to break the line with half breaks. Although Ireland raced out to a 13-0 lead to put the All Blacks under pressure, it may have been more without McCaw’s efforts.
The future All Black captain fielded kick-offs cleanly and cleaned up scrappy ball from Irish kicks, and put on another try-saving tackle on Irish winger Horgan before the end of the half.
McCaw forced four turnovers in his performance, three at the ruck and one jolting tackle that jarred the ball loose from Irish centre Kevin Maggs on a crash ball.
His tenacity foiled multiple Irish attacks, whether it was making a well-timed cover tackle or spoiling Irish ball at the ruck, McCaw helped the All Blacks arrest a 16-7 halftime deficit to race away to a 40-29 win.
Writing for The Guardian, journalist Robert Kitson wrote: “That we will hear a lot in future about the new open-side Richie McCaw is the safest bet in modern rugby.”
McCaw himself described the game as ‘a hell of a step up’ as the first 20 minutes disappeared before he knew it.
“She was a hell of a game,” he said after the game.
“All the hits were pretty big, in the first 20 minutes they threw everything at us. Everyone talks about it’s a big step up. It was a hell of a step up … the first 20 minutes were gone before I knew it.
“I thought, ‘Crikey, I’ve got to do something here’.”
Despite being under pressure from a stout Irish side, McCaw said that once they settled down things started to go right. He highlighted the speed at which Ireland secured their own ball as being ‘a lot quicker’ than he was used to, but ‘she came right in the end’.
“It didn’t help that they were scoring points either. It’s a big learning curve for myself and the team. The big thing is not to panic, because if you start to panic then things go real bad.
“Once we got into the game and started holding the ball it came right.”
“They were very good at sealing off their own pill. They were there a lot quicker than I’ve been used to. But she came right in the end.
Head coach John Mitchell’s faith in the young openside paid dividends, claiming that we would all ‘see more of this lad’.
“We put faith in them from day one, ” Mitchell said.
“Richie probably had an indifferent start but it just shows the calibre of the kid, he never let it get to him.
“I think we’ll see more of this lad.”
Watch Richie McCaw’s debut against Ireland in 2001
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