Four All Blacks careers that have spanned a combined 52 years and accumulated 472 caps will start to wind down from today as New Zealand begin their World Cup buildup with a test in Apia.
Captain Richie McCaw, prop Tony Woodcock and hooker Keven Mealamu will all run onto Apia Park against Samoa for the first and likely last time, with all expected to retire from top-class rugby after the global tournament in England.
Flyhalf Dan Carter will join Racing Metro after the World Cup but at the age of 33 is unlikely to return to the All Blacks following his three-year contract with the French club.
The quartet are among the five New Zealanders to have played 100 tests and helped the side to a decade of dominance.
Two other stalwarts, centre pairing Ma’a Nonu (94 tests) and Conrad Smith (85), who are not playing against Samoa due to their Super Rugby commitments, will also leave for France after England.
All six have been All Blacks regulars since Graham Henry took over as coach in 2004 with assistants Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith.
In that period, the team have played 145 tests for 126 wins and 17 losses.
Barring 2007, when the All Blacks were dumped out of the World Cup quarter-finals by France, they have finished each year since 2004 ranked number one in the world and collected a swag of silverware along the way.
Under Hansen, who took over from Henry following the 2011 World Cup victory, a new crop of players have emerged to help the side win 38 of 42 tests, with just two losses.
Hansen will test the depth of his player pool in Apia, with 17 of his original 41-man squad unavailable due to the Super Rugby final between the Wellington Hurricanes and Otago Highlanders.
Utility back George Moala, who was not in the squad, has been named to start on the right wing, while three others—Brad Weber, Nepo Laulala and Charlie Ngatai—could make their debuts off the bench.
McCaw, however, leads a strong pack for the All Blacks’ first match in Samoa, where excitement levels are at fever pitch after years of trying to host the New Zealanders for a test.
Thousands greeted the All Blacks at Faleolo Airport on Monday, with performances of Samoa’s ‘siva tau’ challenge as they walked through the crowded arrivals hall.
Thousands more attended a parade in Apia and welcome ceremony yesterday.
Partially funded by the Chinese government, Apia Park underwent a $30 million upgrade to facilities and the pitch surface for the match, with New Zealand groundsman Karl Johnson brought in two months ago to help with preparations.
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