Daniel Carter (AP)
London – Sooner or later every great sports dynasty must face up to a changing of the guard and for back-to-back Rugby World Cup champions New Zealand that time has come.
A post-World Cup exodus will hit the All Blacks hard, the departures of five senior players, and in all probability six if captain Richie McCaw decides to retire, leaving coach Steve Hansen to rebuild.
Hansen believes that “if you stay still too long, you’ll eventually end up going backwards” but the loss of key lieutenants like Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu will be keenly felt.
Carter, the game’s great playmaker and leading points scorer in test rugby, Nonu and his centre partner Conrad Smith head for the cash-rich French Top 14 league to play out the end of their careers.
Hooker Kevin Mealamu, the second most-capped All Black of all time behind McCaw, heads into retirement and a role as a New Zealand Rugby ambassador, while prop Tony Woodcock’s long international stint in the front row was ended by injury during this World Cup.
Should McCaw opt to bring the curtain down after his 148th test appearance ended with him lifting the Webb Ellis Cup after a 34-17 victory over Australia on Saturday, New Zealand will lose over 700 caps-worth of international experience.
“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 earlier this year.
“We could lose up to 15 players out of our current 31-man squad, which is massive.”
It is not just the core of senior players that the All Blacks have to replace.
With a policy of not allowing players based overseas to represent the All Blacks, the departures of lock Jeremy Thrush and prop Ben Franks to English sides Gloucester and London Irish, and utility back Charles Piutau to Ulster via Wasps has reduced their stock further.
In addition, centre Sonny Bill Williams, used mainly as an impact player off the bench by Hansen during this World Cup, and abrasive loose forward Liam Messam have committed to play for the New Zealand Sevens squad at next year’s Olympics.
Despite the exodus, Smith said the All Blacks had enough strength in depth to plug the holes.
“You look at the talent that’s still there, I don’t think there will be any concern. I played through a big turnover in 07-08 and if you look at the way we finished 07, and played in 08 we actually went better,” World Cup winner Smith said.
Smith has a ready-made replacement in Malakai Fekitoa while Aaron Cruden will step into Carter’s shoes once restored to full fitness after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that ruled him out of the World Cup.
The job of filling McCaw’s illustrious boots will fall on flanker Sam Cane who has spent much of the last three years as his understudy.
While Kieran Read is set to take McCaw’s armband, Cane is held in high regard and was given a taste of the captaincy against Namibia in the pool stage.
“We thought we’d look to the future. He’s someone we believe in a lot and his time behind Richie has been good,” Hansen said.