As the Rugby World Cup reaches its climax, the final days of the tournament always bring a blend of emotions for players and fans alike.
For starters, there’s the much-dreaded bronze final for the teams that weren’t able to make the final. It’s a test that no one really wants to play, yet, it’s one those who fail at the semifinal must endure.
But amidst the competitive atmosphere, there’s an undercurrent of nostalgia as many revered veterans prepare for their swan song.
For the All Blacks, one of their most notable players moving on is Sam Whitelock, who now holds the distinction of being the most capped All Black in history. His long-standing partnership with Brodie Retallick, who is also leaving, in the second row has been a bedrock of the All Blacks’ dominance.
Another veteran bidding farewell is Aaron Smith. Known for his impeccable passing and sharp instincts, Smith has been a linchpin in New Zealand’s success. Despite a time in his career when his future seemed uncertain, Smith has been one of the standout players this World Cup.
As the World Cup final on Sunday draws closer, Whitelock, Retallick, Smith and their fellow teammates who are leaving New Zealand’s shores prepare for their final dance in the iconic black jersey. These players may be bidding farewell, and others returning after a while, but their legacy will continue to shine brightly in the history of New Zealand rugby.
Thank you for your service
Coles is set to be the only All Blacks player at the Rugby World Cup to retire after the final.
In 11 international seasons, the 90-test veteran has also become the third most-capped hooker in All Blacks history behind Keven Mealamu (132) and Sean Fitzpatrick (92).
Since his professional debut for Wellington in 2007, his speed and skills have redefined the hooker position and at times looks better suited on the wing than in the forward pack. A one-time Rugby World Cup winner in 2015, Coles was also a member of the 2019 campaign that saw the All Blacks finish third.
The 36-year-old is the second-oldest ever All Black and his retirement will bring an end to an illustrious 17 years at the top level for Wellington, the Hurricanes, Māori All Blacks and All Blacks.
With 115 Test points (23 tries), he sits fourth on the all-time scorers list for All Blacks forwards. Ahead of him is Richie McCaw (135), Kieran Read (130), and Ardie Savea (120).
Whitelock could become the first three-time Rugby World Cup winner.
A fresh face during the 2011 campaign, in the years since Whitelock has formed world rugby’s most capped – and arguably greatest – locking pair, with Brodie Retallick.
The most-capped All Blacks player of all time at 152*, Whitelock epitomises the modern lock: agile, mobile, athletic, a force with the ball in hand, capable and smart. His lineout work is exemplary, he hits rucks hard and his engine shows no signs of wear and tear. The 34-year-old Whitelock may be slowing down with age, but the veteran remains somewhere close to his best.
Other than having the most All Blacks caps, Whitelock has the most appearances in a World Cup with a total of 25, the most World Cup wins having only lost two.
Whitelock has played more than 350 first-class matches but isn’t done yet, having signed with French team Pau alongside brother Luke.
Over the past few years, Retallick has cemented himself as one of the first names written down when the All Blacks select a side.
After the World Cup, he’s reuniting with former Chiefs coach Dave Rennie at Japanese club Kobelco Kobe Steelers on a three-year deal.
The 2014 World Rugby and New Zealand Player of the Year is a world-class lock with a high work rate and uncompromising attitude. In 2018, Retallick was awarded the World Rugby Try of the Year Award after his incredible dummy earned him five points against Australia in the opening Bledisloe Cup Test in Sydney.
Retallick became the 12th All Blacks test centurion in their final match of 2022 against England. Retallick made his debut in Super Rugby and the All Blacks only a few months apart in 2012.
He and Sam Whitelock set a new record for the most number of starts as a lock combination last year, beating the previous mark of 64 set by Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.
He was a member of the 2015 Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks squad and the team that finished third in 2019.
Smith is regarded by some as the best halfback to ever lace up the boots. His ability to ignite the All Blacks attack with his bullet-like pass is something to be marvelled at.
The 34-year-old quickly established himself as the All Blacks’ first-choice halfback, playing 13 tests in his debut season in 2012.
Smith became the most-capped All Blacks halfback of all time when he reached 82 in 2018 and has since gone on to become the most-capped All Blacks back of all time with 122*. This is his third World Cup, winning in 2015 and finishing third in 2019. He was an integral part of the Highlanders’ maiden Super Rugby title in 2015 and is the team’s most-capped player (185).
He has signed a long-term contract with Toyota Verblitz, and will be joined by Beauden Barrett.
Tighthead specialist Laulala has built a reputation as one of the world’s leading scrummagers since making his All Blacks debut in 2015. Laulala has played all around New Zealand – for the Crusaders, Chiefs and Blues – and his experience is an asset to the national team.
A member of the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad, Laulala will be hoping to right the wrongs of that campaign before he heads to Toulouse next year.
Born in Samoa, Laulala attended Wesley College in Auckland. He was a member of the All Blacks’ World Cup squad in 2019, making six appearances.
The third most successful All Blacks coach in history, Foster has won 32 tests. He was an assistant coach at the 2015 World Cup which the All Blacks won and in 2019 when the side finished third.
He coached the Chiefs between 2004 and 2011, with their best finish being second in 2009 to the Bulls.
When he first took the helm of the All Blacks, the team were riding the coattails of a period of unparalleled dominance. Under the watchful eye of Sir Steve Hansen, the All Blacks won a staggering 93 of the 108 tests they played, losing just 10 of those clashes.
Foster’s tenure as head coach has been marked by several “firsts”. He oversaw the first-ever defeat to Argentina, followed by a first test series loss to Ireland, and endured a gruelling six-test run featuring five losses.
In March, New Zealand Rugby announced Scott Roberston would become the All Blacks’ coach from 2024 through to the end of the 2027 World Cup.
Schmidt rose to stardom as the coach of the Ireland national side, recording several highlights during his tenure between 2013 and 2019. The team won three Six Nations titles – including a Grand Slam in 2018, and also led the team to their first-ever wins over the All Blacks, the first in Chicago in 2016 and the second in Dublin in 2018.
After the 2019 World Cup, he joined the Blues before joining the All Blacks as a selector in 2021. He was later promoted to an assistant coach midway through 2022. Earlier this year he ruled himself out of the running to replace Foster as head coach.
McLeod took over from Sir Wayne Smith as the All Blacks defensive coach in 2017. The former All Blacks midfielder was initially signed on until the 2019 World Cup in Japan and retained his position until the end of this one.
Feek played 10 tests for the All Blacks between 1999 and 2001 as a prop and over 60 for the Crusaders. He would later join the Hurricanes as assistant coach in 2008 before heading to Leinster as assistant coach in 2010. In 2014, he became a member of Joe Schmidt’s coaching staff for Ireland. He joined the All Blacks as an assistant coach in 2020.
All Blacks manager Shand took the job in 2004 with Sir Graham Henry after four years at the Crusaders. His role involves leading all team operations and managing the New Zealand Rugby business objectives as they relate to the team.
Earlier this year he announced he would be leaving the All Black after the World Cup. He is highly regarded and has enjoyed a long career spanning four World Cups, taking in the golden era when the All Blacks won back-to-back tournaments in 2011 and 2015, and were the top-ranked team in the world for a decade.
All Blacks mental skills coach Enoka has announced he will not look to extend his time with New Zealand Rugby once his contract expires following the Rugby World Cup.
Enoka has been with the team for 23 years, having first joined with Wayne Smith in 2000. As the longest-serving member of team management, he has been involved in more than 290 tests including five Rugby World Cups.
Off on an Overseas Experience
Frizell has emerged as the All Blacks’ devastating blindside replacement to Jerome Kaino – and just in time. Promoted to start as the pressure valve threatened to burst last year, Frizell delivered immediate ball-carrying impact and physicality to help propel the All Blacks to an upset triumph against the Springboks at Ellis Park.
Frizell, who was a late call-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, had not produced at an elite level consistently, and prior to this season, the All Blacks hadn’t trusted him enough to reward him with consistent starts. Now, though, Frizell is performing as though he belongs.
If Jason Ryan had his way, Shannon Frizell would be ensconced in the All Blacks for many years to come but he has signed a deal with Toshiba Brave Lupus, who are coached by Todd Blackadder. There is a chance Frizell will come back to New Zealand’s shores, with his contract thought to be for one year.
Mo’unga leaves for Japan next year until 2026 in prime form having signed a deal with Toshiba Brave Lupus, along with Frizell.
Mo’unga’s attacking prowess and ability to lead the team around the field make him an invaluable member of the All Blacks and he will be hoping to repeat his Super Rugby success in France after leading the Crusaders to their seventh consecutive title earlier this year. He comes into the campaign in his prime from an experience and tactical awareness perspective.
While Mo’unga debuted in 2017, only last year did he truly establish his credentials as the first-choice starting No 10 but it was during the second Bledisloe Cup test against Australia this year that he showed why. He transformed the All Blacks’ decision-making and direction, steering the team to victory after trailing 17-3 at halftime to score 17 unanswered points and win 23-20.
Mo’unga made his debut for the Crusaders in 2016 after playing for the New Zealand U20 side in 2014. At the end of the 2017 provincial season, he was the leading points scorer with 160 in just 10 games for Canterbury. He made his All Blacks debut in 2018, getting the call-up from the bench against France in Dunedin.
Mo’unga’s departure will leave an irreplicable void.
Few wingers have been as devastating in Super Rugby in recent years as Fainga’anuku, and he’s continued that form in the World Cup.
One of the form wingers during this year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition, the 25-year-old topped the try-scoring table with 13 tries for the Crusaders. He missed the entire Rugby Championship with an injury but starred in his return to the test arena against the Wallabies in Dunedin. Fainga’anuku finished with the most carries out of any All Black (21) and the equal-most line breaks with two.
Fainga’anuku made his test debut against Ireland at Eden Park in 2022. A product of Nelson College, Fainga’anuku has also represented New Zealand Schools, Junior Crusaders, Crusaders Development XV and the New Zealand Under 20 side. He made his provincial debut for Tasman in 2018 and earned a spot in the Crusaders lineup against the Brumbies in 2019.
Earlier this year it was confirmed he had signed with French club Toulon covering one and a half seasons finishing in July 2025.
See you soon?
Barrett, a once-in-a-generation player, has signed with Toyota Verblitz in 2024 but it’s expected that he will return to New Zealand, potentially as soon as 2025.
With blinding pace, a great boot and excellent game management, Barrett has been a key member of the All Blacks for the past few seasons. He made his test debut in 2012 and was initially used as an impact player off the bench. In 2014, he had his first start and went on to feature in six 2015 matches, scoring 26 points including a sizzling try in the final against Australia. Since then, Barrett has been in electrifying form for the All Blacks and won back-to-back World Rugby Player of the Year awards in 2016 and 2017.
The playmaker sits third on the All Blacks’ all-time test-scoring list with 729 behind Andrew Mehrtens (967) and Daniel Carter (1598) and with 122 tests under his belt is the second most-capped back behind Aaron Smith (124*), who will join him at Toyota Verblitz.
Barrett has already enjoyed a sabbatical in Japan, with the Suntory Sungoliath in Japan’s Top League.
*Players signed to remain in New Zealand … so far.
Sevu Reece, Joe Moody, Stephen Perofeta, Caleb Clarke, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Dalton Papali’i, Hoskins Sotutu, Josh Lord.
Patrick Tuipulotu (sabbatical early 2022), Ardie Savea (sabbatical 2024 – Kobe), Sam Cane (sabbatical option 2024), Codie Taylor (sabbatical option 2024), Jordie Barrett (sabbatical option post-2023 RWC), Tupou Vaa’i, Scott Barrett, Asafo Aumua, David Havili, Damian McKenzie, TJ Perenara.
Anton Lienert-Brown, Tyrel Lomax, Ethan de Groot.
Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Samisoni Taukei’aho
Luke Kirkness is an Online Sports Editor for the NZ Herald. He previously covered consumer affairs for the Herald and was an assistant news director in the Bay of Plenty. He won Student Journalist of the Year in 2019.