The rugby world embarks on 2016 without two of its most famous names Posted about 8 years ago

Photo: The Rugby Site

“Hi, Richie,” he said, thrusting a hand in my direction.

Of course I knew that. Everyone already knew that.

This was 2008 and sitting beside me was the captain of the world-famous All Blacks and a recent winner of the World Rugby Player of the Year award – the sport’s highest individual prize.

His outstanding form and consistency had also seen him nominated for that same award in four out of the last five years, cementing the claims of many – but certainly not the man himself – that he was the best player of his generation.

He had also recently underlined his leadership credentials by steering the All Blacks to the Tri-Nations crown and a rare ‘Grand Slam’ tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

He was also fresh from a press conference to announce his debut for the equally famous Barbarians – but still his modesty would not allow him to make any assumptions.

That is Richie McCaw.

Spin forward several success-laden years including two World Cup triumphs and two further Player of the Year awards, and McCaw was as grounded as ever as he finally called time on his glittering career.

“We play the game to make you proud,” he told his supporters, “and I hope I have managed to do that over the years.”

Another honour would soon follow with his appointment to the Order of New Zealand – a select group of ‘great’ New Zealanders that can never number more than 20. It may not come with the title that many believe ‘Sir Richie’ deserved but you sense McCaw will no doubt be comfortable with the lack of fanfare.

His decision to hang up his boots may have been expected but that does not make his departure any easier to process.

Replacing him in the All Blacks’ line-up will be difficult even given the talent at New Zealand’s disposal when it comes to ability and leadership but filling the void off the field will be an even greater challenge.

In the words of former Wallabies captain John Eales, “Rugby is fortunate to have a player and person of the calibre of Richie McCaw. He is an outstanding captain, a world class player and a role model for our sport.”

He was speaking several years before McCaw’s retirement.

Rugby’s loss is aviation’s gain, specifically Christchurch Helicopters, with McCaw set to indulge his other passion by pursuing a commercial pilot license alongside his work with the iSport charity foundation he founded with Dan Carter and Ali Williams.

He will no doubt juggle those duties with corporate work but perhaps alarmingly no coaching or mentoring responsibility.

Rest assured there is plenty of interest in tapping into his extensive knowledge and experience but until McCaw is ready you will have to make do with his Rugby Site archive.

McCaw does not the owe the sport anything having given so much outside of 148 Test caps and 16 years outstanding service for club and country, but it cannot let him walk away.

He has led with distinction, never let his team or country down and inspired generations of players and fans.

He may also have infuriated a few others but commands great respect from most and that must not be wasted – especially after the sad passing of another icon of the sport with similarly admirable qualities.

Let us roll back the years once again.

It is 1997, Lomu is stood alone, seemingly trying to hide his 6ft 5in and 18st frame as best he could in a room where few, even his team-mates and the opposition, could rival his frame.

The All Blacks have just conjured a thrilling comeback to claim a 26-26 draw with England at Twickenham and now the hostilities have been replaced by formalities at the post-game dinner.

Ferocious and feared on the field, Lomu appears shy and retiring off it as he shuns the limelight for a quiet corner only to be approached by a couple of young fans – one a would-be journalist – keen to meet the most famous name in the game who amazingly still felt compelled to introduce himself.

If McCaw was a giant on the field then Jonah Lomu stood over the game like a Colossus.

The youngest ever All Black when he laced up his boots for the first time against France in 1994 aged 19 years and 49 days, Lomu had already caught the eye at age-group level and for New Zealand 7s.

But it was the following year that his profile went stratospheric – and he took the game with him.

South Africa may have won the 1995 Rugby World Cup with a final victory over New Zealand but the biggest winner was the sport itself.

Lomu’s devastating performances, most memorably when he ran over England’s Mike Catt on his way to the try line during their quarter-final clash, made headlines around the world and took rugby union from the back to the front pages.

The giant wing was the perfect poster boy for the dawn of professionalism and helped fuel its development until the kidney disease he had originally been diagnosed in 1995 and subsequently hidden, became too debilitating for him to play

His career looked like it may have been over just as it was blossoming but he attacked nephrotic syndrome like he attacked the line and battled back to claim Commonwealth Games gold with New Zealand 7s.

He also returned to the All Blacks and the World Cup stage in England in 1999 where he took his tournament tally to 15 – which remains a record.

The tries also kept coming, including the final act in a thrilling 39-35 victory over Australia in 2000 in front of a world record crowd of 109,874 lucky fans.

His 63rd and final Test appearance would come in 2002 before his health deteriorated once more. A lengthy period of dialysis would be followed by a kidney transplant in 2004 that allowed him to make another comeback.

He would eventually retire three years later but his health battles continued with his body rejecting the transplant in 2011 making him ‘a prisoner of dialysis’ until he died in November aged just 40.

His untimely death of a heart attack linked to his kidney problems made Lomu front page news once again but in truth he had rarely been away from the spotlight since exploding onto the international stage.

Lomu was the sport’s first truly global star and the demand for his time and infectious smile has rarely waned and increased with his retirement.

No-one has really come close to eclipsing him, not even the insanely consistent and decorated McCaw.

Sadly, someone must now step forward to fill the sizeable void and it is a challenge as formidable as a rampaging Lomu in his prime and maybe just as difficult to tackle.

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist who has been reporting around the rugby globe for over 20 years. A former editor of the leading rugby union website, he is a veteran of five World Cups and cites England’s 2003 triumph as the most memorable moment of his professional career - closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.

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