No one is prepared to admit it but the All Blacks have a huge extra emotional investment in the Rugby World Cup final as they prepare to farewell six all-time great players.
Saturday’s decider against Australia at Twickenham has more than enough motivation for both sides, with the winner not only becoming world champions but getting to retain the Webb Ellis Cup as the first team to win it three times.
But for New Zealand it is also a chance for a triumphant send off to half a dozen players who made them such a dominant force in the past decade and more.
Skipper Richie McCaw is still refusing to confirm it but he’s set to retire along with fellow 34-year-old Keven Mealamu, while there will be European club exits for backline maestros Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith to follow prop Tony Woodcock’s retirement through injury mid-way through the tournament.
Between them, they occupy six of the seven places for most-capped All Blacks and have amassed an almighty 702 Tests.
Come Sunday, New Zealand will have lost lose the core of arguably its greatest team in one mighty swoop.
Certainly McCaw and Carter will go down as two of the greatest to have played international rugby union.
Together, they own almost every record there is.
Carter is Test rugby’s leading pointscorer, McCaw its most capped and also the only three-time World Rugby player of the year – although Carter has won twice.
Most Test wins? McCaw holds that with 130.
He narrowly shades Mealamu (113), who is just ahead of Woodcock (102) with Carter (98) trailing him – and with that you start to realise just how big a gap this dirty half-dozen will leave.
“I think he’s probably the greatest player we’ve ever had play the game, certainly for New Zealand,” coach Steve Hansen said of McCaw.
On Carter, champion Australian five-eighth Stephen Larkham was equally effusive in his praise – raising the All Black No.10 above England great Jonny Wilkinson.
“Dan Carter will be number one in the pantheon. Clearly number one,” Larkham said, when asked to rank him alongside the other great playmakers.
“Probably over here in England Jonny Wilkinson will be number one, but in the southern hemisphere Dan is ranked number one.”
Across the Tasman, hope exists that the transition is already in place – and that longtime apprentice Sam Cane will servicably fill the void left by McCaw, Carter can be replaced by Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden or Lima Sopoaga and Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty will form the new centre pairing.
But empires fall – and rarely are they rebuilt, leaving the All Blacks with one last chance to cash in on an phenomenal era of success.
Brilliant Australian No.8 David Pocock is the man tasked with nullifying McCaw at the breakdown and is seen as the natural successor to the all-conquering flanker as the game’s most influential player.
He believes teams draw motivation for such occasions from many avenues, but playing the match as a tribute to their departing stars? He’s not so sure.
His Wallabies coach, the wily Michael Cheika, was more forthright – suggesting it would be an unspoken motivator rather than something coach Steve Hansen would draw on.
“It might be for them. But you don’t need to be looking for stuff like that in a World Cup final, I’d imagine,” Cheika said.
“(But) I wouldn’t think so. I think the coach is too smart for that.”
WHERE ARE THE CHAMPION ALL BLACKS GOING?
Richie McCaw (Likely retiring)
Dan Carter (Racing Metro, France)
Conrad Smith (Pau, France)
Ma’a Nonu (Toulon, France)
Colin Slade (Pau, France)
Ben Franks (London Irish, England)
Keven Mealamu (retiring)