Oh, captain!

by Paul Thomas / 11 December, 2010
The campaign against Richie McCaw is actually a backhanded compliment.

If you believe his legion of foreign critics, All Blacks captain Richie McCaw has single-handedly demolished the notion that cheats never prosper.

The demonisation of McCaw has become part of the ritual of inter­national rugby. Before a test, an ex-player or former coach - legendary Irish lock Willie John McBride, say - is wheeled out to do the "he's a great player, but he gets away with murder" thing.

At the post-match press conference, opposition players and coaches run through a repertoire of fatalistic shrugs, disgusted headshakes and mirthless irony, knowing their media will pick up the ball and run with it. As in: "With a bit of luck - or a referee willing to sin-bin the perpetually offside McCaw - [Ireland] might have made a finish of it."

A fundamental tenet of the harshly pragmatic world of professional sport is that it's not cheating if you get away with it. In other words, the rules are what the match officials on the day say they are.

The idea that the Irish could see what McCaw was getting away with, but didn't follow suit out of respect for the law book or the ethos of the game is simply laugh­able: this is top-level international sport in the 21st century, not Eton versus Harrow some time before World War I.

Hence the follow-up charge: McCaw prospers because referees are intimidated by his status as one of the biggest stars in the game and captain of the world's leading team. This has some validity, but it raises the question: what planet are you on? Captains and superstars have always received preferential treatment and made the most of it: why should McCaw be any different?

A fast bowler who'd endured countless frustrations because of the umpires' extreme reluctance to rule against cricket's first superstar, Dr WG Grace, finally succeeded in knocking two of his stumps out of the ground. As Grace headed for the pavilion with all the alacrity of a condemned man mounting the gallows, the bowler said, "Surely you're not going, doctor? One stump's still standing."

On another occasion Grace did refuse to go, telling the bowler, "The crowd has come to see me bat, not to see you bowl." Given that it was an exhibition match, he probably had a point.

During his decade in English county cricket, former New Zealand captain John Wright observed that some umpires were favourably disposed towards international players whereas others seldom gave captains out. It was no coincidence that captains submitted an umpiring report after each game.

And the opposite applied: if the outcome was inevitable, tailenders were often sent packing on the "near enough is good enough" principle, particularly if an umpire had a long drive home and wanted to beat the traffic.

The worst cheating occurs behind the scenes and involves breaching the rules in a premeditated, systematic manner. The use of performance-enhancing (as opposed to recreational) drugs is the most obvious and prevalent example. Then there are the recent scandals in Formula One motor racing: the McLaren team obtaining hundreds of pages of technical information from a spy at Ferrari, and Renault instructing Nelson Piquet Jnr to stage a crash to help Fernando Alonso win the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix.

On-field cheating entails more than testing the boundaries and manipulating referees. It's calculated deceit, fielders insisting they've taken a clean catch when they know or suspect otherwise, or soccer players taking a dive to con the referee into awarding a penalty.

The campaign against McCaw is a backhanded compliment. Once he retires there'll be no more talk of cheating; his ability to play to the limit of the law and the referee's patience will become part of the legend.

After all, who still gets indignant over the 1974 British Lions' infamous "99" call, the signal for every player to punch his nearest opponent, even if they had to run 50m to do so? That team was coached by Syd Millar, who later became chairman of the International Rugby Board. The captain was Willie John McBride.

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