Richie McCaw, King of Cheats?

Rugby is meant to be a gentleman’s game.  There is a code of conduct that is at the core of the sport.  You get roughed up now and then, but you don’t complain.  You be a man and take it, quietly and without complaint.  This is not a sport for babies or playacting on the field.

riche-sin-binWhen Richie stuck his foot out and tripped Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe during the All Blacks vs Los Pumas match last weekend, I was shocked, along with the rest of the household watching the TV.  To give you some context, both Leanne and I were wearing our No. 7 All Blacks jerseys and had just been talking him up to our friend who was new to rugby.  Richie doesn’t normally do things like that.  And it is true, he doesn’t.  In 143 international test matches, this was only the 3rd Yellow Card offense he had been pinged with.  And what has been the nature of those Yellow Cards?  Breaking the rules, or resorting to violence?  Until now, it has never been the latter.

Three Yellow Cards.  Does that mean he has only offended three times?  Of course not, but he is no where near the “cheater” that rugby fans outside of New Zealand want him to be.

In this case, however, he had legitimately indulged in perhaps his only moment of genuine on field thuggery in his career.  By thuggery, I mean actually maliciously lashing out.  This is a guy who is famous for taking the physical abuse and bullying that has been dealt to him over the years.  In the last four years, he has been punched in the face, elbowed in the head, kneed, and no doubt much more that we don’t see in the mix of the ruck.  In his twelve or more years as a professional rugby player, he has often been a target due to his ability as a good openside flanker to disrupt the ball at the breakdown and force turnovers.  For the genuine thugs out there, this is enough to cause them to take a shot at him.  Does Richie punch back?  No.  I have never seen him retaliate when he has been attacked.

So that’s why it is such a surprise to see him have his “brain explosion” on the field and deliberately trip up his opposite number among the Argentinians.  Lobbe had just picked up the ball from the ruck and was starting to run.  There were few defenders left among the All Blacks line and Richie suddenly poked his foot out and tripped Lobbe up.  The TMO caught it, alerted the ref, Wayne Barnes, and a yellow card was given.  Riche was sent to the bin as the crowd, rightfully, booed.

Given what an upstanding guy Richie McCaw is, there are two possibilities that could explain his surprise actions.  1.) He saw a hole in the All Blacks defense and in that split second made a stupid choice to trip Lobbe to try and stop a potential try being scored.  2.) The Argentinian players had been provocative and managed to get under his skin enough for him to finally retaliate in the heat of the moment and the pressure.  I think the real answer is a mix of the two.

Richie does not do this sort of stuff.  To openly trip someone for the first time in 143 tests, with his level of experience and leadership is just not his character.  He is often depicted by New Zealand fans and media as a super human, perhaps even angelic in that he can do no wrong.  The trip is a reminder that yes, he is human and capable of frustration and desperation born cynicism like the rest of us.

But let’s remember something… he is not Quade Cooper.  Nor is he Scott Higganbotham, or Dean Greyling, all players who have physically assaulted McCaw during games.  That’s why it is sad to see the ignorance out there when people try to compare the booing of Richie McCaw to New Zealand’s booing of Quade Cooper.  A recent New Zealand Herald cartoon depicts New Zealand fans at the game being shocked that Argentinians would villainize and boo a player, the irony of the cartoon being that this is supposedly exactly what New Zealand fans have done to Quade Cooper.  This does show the ignorance and casual rugby knowledge of the cartoonist.  Richie has never thrown a punch, elbow or knee at anyone.

Quade earned his place as a pantomime villain for NZ fans by his thuggish behaviour.  Quade has 4 yellow cards in his relatively short test career, while the most capped test player in the world just hit number three in 143 games.  And this is the first instance of McCaw lashing out physically, although it was a trip, not a punch.  There is little room for comparison.  McCaw’s record is overlooked by those that envy his skill and secretly wish he was playing for their national team.  It’s that simple.

Richie apologized publicly at the press conference and privately to the team.  He acknowledged the stupidity of his action and that he knew he had made a mistake the second he gave in to the impulse.  For one minor indiscretion though, he hardly deserves the treatment he is being given by a rabid and envious media.

Finally, to go back to the gentleman’s game.  Rugby is a sport for men.  Boys play it, but they pride themselves on behaving like tough guys who aren’t there to complain.  They are there to play.  If Richie was indeed stirred up by indiscretions and taunts from the Pumas players, then he would not use this as an excuse to the public.  You don’t make excuses.  You man up, take the criticism and get on with the game.  Telling the media what led to his “brain explosion” would just sound like making excuses, but it is worth considering that Richie is human and we all have limits to our patience.  The Pumas already had one player sent off by Yellow Card earlier in the first half.  They were pushing their luck like everyone else.  Lobbe is also a great player, and like Richie, an openside flanker whose position often makes him an irritant at the ruck.  Richie may not have been so cynical as he appeared in the replay when you consider his record and past conduct over the years.

Is he a cheat?  No.  He’s an openside, the same as Michael Hooper and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.  Their job description is to disrupt at the ruck and to do that well, you have to be able to walk the fine line of the rugby laws.  Does this have anything to do with tripping someone?  No.  In this case, this is not about “cheating”, this is just about red mist.  Is Richie human?  Yes, he is.  That is what makes his achievements on the field in 143 international tests so worthy of respect.