Simon Larkin, I’m very sorry. It’s thanks to Simon that I’m standing in Helensville, New Zealand on a Thursday morning, readying myself for some of the finest World Rally Championship action ever.
He’s the man who makes the deals, keeps the WRC on the road.
Mid-sentence, I’ve turned my back on him. Cut him dead.
It’s been a very long time since I was stopped in my tracks. Literally, stopped. Can’t move. Can’t speak.
It’s happened twice before. The first one was Markku Alén. The second? Colin McRae.
But this guy comes from another world. A world without wheels.
Rallying is front and center in my life. It always has been. My father competed and passed his love to me. The transition from living and breathing the sport to living, breathing and working in it wasn’t always as easy as you might have thought.
The need to actually speak to Alén, McRae and the other heroes who had, throughout my youth, brought my bedroom walls to life wasn’t easy.
Perceived wisdom is that you should probably avoid meeting your heroes. What if you do catch them on a bad day? What if they do turn out to be a bit of a d***?
I was safe. McRae and Alén? Legends both.
But this was different.
Rallying is where I work. Rugby’s where I live my life as a superfan these days.
When I’m not working on a weekend, my son Ollie and I are never far from The Rec, watching the Bath heroes bringing his bedroom wall to life.
Which brings me back to Thursday morning. Deep in conversation with Simon, I glanced over my shoulder and caught sight of a black-suited fella.
“Crikey,” I thought. “That guy looks a lot like Richie McCaw.”
It is. It! Is!
For a good half hour or so, I was zero use to anybody. So many questions I’d wanted to ask
Read the history books and Richie McCaw is the All Blacks captain who guided New Zealand to back-to-back World Cup wins. He represented his country 148 times (110 as captain) and was voted World Rugby player of the year a record three times.
Look up the word legend, and you’ll find a picture of this guy sitting right there alongside McRae and Alén.
Totally unprepared, I stuck out my hand and reminded him of his name.
I just stared. Then stared some more.
Fortunately, I’d imagine he’s confronted by this sort of reaction on a daily basis. He’d met lunatics like me before and offered an immediately disarming: “How are you, mate?”
His documentary Chasing Great has accompanied me around the world for years and when the battery runs out on the laptop, there’s his book. I know his career inside out.
And now he’s standing next to me, asking me where I live.
For a good half hour or so, I was zero use to anybody. So many questions I’d wanted to ask.
What was it like to be man of the match on his All Blacks debut against Ireland in 2001?
What would he say to former Australia coach Bob Dwyer?
I didn’t get to any of those questions. Amazingly, ridiculously, conversation was effortless.
Readying himself for a ride alongside Gus Greensmith, he asked about the cars and chatted about the road ahead.
I asked him about his gliding and family life at home in Christchurch.
There was advice for Ollie as a player and a disarming warmth and sincerity that, quite frankly, took my breath away.
McCaw’s a Kiwi, perhaps the ultimate Kiwi (alongside Hayden Paddon and John Kennard, obviously…) and folk from this part of the world aren’t generally known for the big ego. There’s no room for that sort of nonsense in this most endearing of cultures.
That’s how, standing in a school carpark, in a town of 3000 people 25 miles north of Auckland, Richie (he has that instantly recognizable, first-name status in our house – even my daughter Georgia knew not to interrupt momma, Ollie and I when Richie was on the telly) just blended in.
How did he get on in the car? Have a watch of our video here. He loved it.
And now he’s got my business card and a standing invitation to come drive at DirtFish.
“I might take you up on that, mate,” he grinned.
Do. Just do. Stay for the week.
But seriously, Simon and Jared (Grellet, my joint-favorite person in the WRC Promoter) thank you for delivering a day I will remember for the rest of my life.
And Richie, you’re a legend.
See you in Seattle. I promise not to be weird.