Richie McCaw, who captained New Zealand to two Rugby World Cup triumphs and was one of the best players ever to grace the game, brought an end to his 14-year international career by announcing his retirement on Thursday.
The 34-year-old flanker ended his career as the most capped player (148) and captain (110) in world rugby. He won three World Rugby Player of the Year awards and led the All Blacks to successive World Cup victories in 2011 and 2015.
His decision came the day after the unexpected death of Jonah Lomu at the age of 40 had rocked the rugby-mad country.
McCaw paid tribute to the former All Blacks winger before confirming his widely expected decision.
“I’m going to be hanging up my boots. My last game for the All Blacks and as a professional rugby player was the World Cup final a couple of weeks ago,” McCaw told a news conference on Thursday.
“I sit here today with no regrets over what I have done as a rugby player. I think I played some of my best rugby over those last couple of weeks.”
McCaw had done little to play down expectations that he would retire after this year’s World Cup, although he never explicitly said he would call it quits.
After the euphoria of winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, he cryptically replied “when you get moments like this, why would you ever call it a day?”.
“I thought his last game in the World Cup final was one of the best he played,” said New Zealand coach Steve Hansen.
“Like everybody, you have to pick the right time to go and he couldn’t have picked a better time.
“He has been a terrific player and leader and probably the greatest we have had.”
Although the debate over whether McCaw was the greatest player the game has ever seen is destined to rage on, very few can claim to have performed at such a high level for so long.
“One thing I have been proud of has been my consistency as a rugby player,” McCaw said. “I’m pretty proud to have performed at a level that was reasonably good. That’s something I’ll be able to reflect on with some pride.”
McCaw, who will be 35 in December, said his immediate plan was to start work as a commercial helicopter pilot in Christchurch.
“It’s something I’m passionate about,” he said. “I’m excited with what’s in the future. I have enjoyed my time as a rugby player but I am looking forward to what’s coming.
“I guess it’s the end of a chapter and the start of a new one. But it has been a hell of a ride.”
His retirement signals the end of an era in All Blacks rugby with six other players who have helped the side become the most successful in world rugby retiring or heading offshore for lucrative contracts to end their rugby careers.
McCaw joins fellow test centurions Keven Mealamu (132) and Tony Woodcock (118) in hanging up their boots, while Daniel Carter (112), Ma’a Nonu (103) and Conrad Smith (94) have also ended their New Zealand careers by joining clubs in France.
Since 2004, when the six players became cemented in the side, the All Blacks have won 137 of their 157 tests, losing 18 and drawing two.
Under Hansen, who took over following the 2011 World Cup, they have won 49 of their 54 matches.