AP – The All Blacks may be deserving favourites to lift the Rugby World Cup on October 31 but what comes afterwards will make their fans nervous.
The reigning world champions are preparing to lose the core of their great side and are set to be more vulnerable in 2016 than they have been for over a decade – giving Wallabies fans fresh hope of an end to the great Bledisloe Cup drought.
The World Cup has proved in its seven previous editions to be a launching pad for new talent but also a terminus for established stars to take their last international bows.
Over the next two months in England and Wales, it will mark the passing of a generation whose luminaries include All Blacks greats Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, Springboks Victor Matfield and Jean de Villiers, Ireland’s Paul O’Connell, and France’s Thierry Dusautoir.
New Zealand will be among the hardest hit as they prepare to cope with the combined departures of McCaw and Carter, hooker Keven Mealamu, prop Tony Woodcock and centres Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, who have been the cornerstone of its successful teams of the past decade.
Those players enter the World Cup with a combined 675 Test appearances, and their collective departure will leave a big hole in the squad.
Some players are harder to replace than others, and McCaw and Carter have been record-breakers and undisputed giants of the game.
McCaw made his 142nd Test appearance in a 41-13 win over Australia on August 15, surpassing former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll as the world’s most-capped player. Carter, who has played 106 Tests, is the leading scorer in Tests with 1516 points as he enters his fourth World Cup.
Mealamu with 127 caps and Woodcock with 106 have been foundations of the All Blacks pack since 2002, and were key members of the 2011 World Cup-winning squad.
Nonu, who will likely make his 100th Test appearance during the World Cup, and Smith (88), will leave as New Zealand’s most-capped midfield combination.
Coach Steve Hansen says the loss of that experience, the possible departure of other seasoned players to European clubs, and signs that those clubs are targeting younger All Blacks, will make next year challenging.
“2016 is going to be one of the most difficult years for All Black rugby because not only are we losing people as it’s time for them to go overseas or retire, and we’ve lost one or two other people we didn’t want to lose, but we’re also going to lose some guys to the Olympics,” Hansen said.
“We could lose up to 15 players out of our current 31-man squad.
“It’s something we’re planning for. The immediate challenge is the World Cup, which gets most of our focus, but it’s about winning today and also making sure you’re looking to the future so you can win tomorrow.”
The squad New Zealand have at the World Cup will be the most experienced at the tournament, with a combined total of 1484 Test caps – 187 more than second-place South Africa.
But, with an average age of 28.2, New Zealand’s squad won’t be the oldest at the tournament. That distinction belongs to France which, with only one player aged under 25, has an average age of 29.2.
Samoa comes in next at 28.9, ahead of Tonga at 28.6 and Fiji is fifth at 28.4 – leaving those teams facing the prospects of a large number of imminent retirements.
Cup hosts England and Wales have the youngest squads, both with an average age of 26.2, reducing the prospect of retirements and promising continuity over the next four years.
Ireland and South Africa match the All Blacks’ average age of 28.2 but both have a balance between older and younger players, leaving them well-placed to maintain form beyond the World Cup.
South Africa has 14 players aged 30 or older, including the outstanding Matfield, at 38, de Villiers at 34, Fourie du Preez at 33 and Schalk Burger and Bryan Habana at 32. But it also has nine players younger than 25, and two only 21.
De Villiers and Matfield, captain and vice-captain, will both retire. Matfield intended to do so after the 2011 tournament but was lured back and has remained an imposing force at lock.
He has played in 14 matches at three previous World Cups, and needs only four more to overtake John Smit’s South African record of 18 Cup appearances. Matfield will be the oldest player at the tournament, ahead of 37-year-old Tonga hooker Aleki Lutui. However, he will not be the oldest player ever to have taken part in a World Cup: That distinction belongs to Uruguay’s Diego Ormaechea, who was 40 at the 1999 tournament.
France may also be looking for a new long-term captain. Dusautoir recently signed a new two-year deal with Toulouse but, at 33 and after recent struggles with injury, is uncertain of his international future.
Ireland will lose its inspirational captain Paul O’Connell. The 35-year-old O’Connell, who is playing at his fourth World Cup, recently joined Toulon and is the only member of the Ireland squad not currently playing for one of the four Irish provinces Connact, Leinster, Munster or Ulster.
“After the World Cup I’d like to experience new environments, and it is my genuine hope that I will have some future involvement with Munster and Irish rugby,” O’Connell said.