It had been expected for some time, but New Zealand captain Richie McCaw yesterday confirmed his retirement from rugby following an illustrious 14-year international career that saw him become one of the most decorated players of all time.
Hailed by All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen as the greatest player to have ever played for the country, McCaw's record-breaking career must also thrust him into consideration as the best to have played the sport full stop.
When picking an all-time world XI in rugby union, McCaw would surely be among the first names on the teamsheet for most. His compatriot Michael Jones is widely regarded as one of the most talented flankers of all time and was equally adept on either side of the scrum, but even his career pales into mediocrity when compared to that of McCaw.
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Indeed, McCaw would not only be a mere member of the team - he would more than likely lead it. His captaincy has encompassed an unprecedented period of dominance for the All Blacks, and the departing generation of the likes of McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Keven Mealamu can justifiably lay claim to being the best team of all time.
Of course, exactly who is the greatest player ever is subjective and bound to cause fierce debate. How, for example, can you compare the genius of Gareth Edwards to the towering presence of Martin Johnson? Modern rugby is a different beast from that of the amateur days, so does that give Brian O'Driscoll a head start on Philippe Sella? Does the late, great Jonah Lomu get extra marks towards his already convincing claim due to his sheer influence on the sport?
Whatever parameters one decides upon, what can't be denied is that McCaw is certainly in the reckoning. The master thief is largely responsible for the breakdown now being the most important part of the game. While a fly-half's boot or a winger's pace was once considered the game-changer, it is now the turnover, and none has been better at that than McCaw.
The 34-year-old went out at the very top of the sport, with his last match being the World Cup final victory over Australia at Twickenham, and here Sports Mole pays tribute to the legendary number seven with a series of statistics that prove he is among the very best to ever lace up a pair of boots.
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148 - Test matches
A world record and one that doesn't look like being beaten anytime soon. McCaw became the first player to ever reach a century of appearances for New Zealand - a substantial feat in itself - before going on to surpass Ireland's O'Driscoll with his 142nd international cap against Australia in a World Cup warm-up match.
That tally was extended by six more at the World Cup itself, with the nearest active player being 35-year-old Gethin Jenkins of Wales - still 24 appearances off. What makes the tally even more remarkable is that it has come at flanker - one of the most demanding positions on the field. Indeed, only four flankers have ever won more than 100 caps, and the next highest after McCaw is Australia's George Smith with 111.
Incredibly, McCaw has played in 27% of all New Zealand Test matches since 1903, and he has won a staggering 131 of those 148 Tests - also a world record. Only four players in the history of rugby have played in more international matches than McCaw has won.
110 - Test matches as captain
Another record. He became the highest capped Test captain in 2010 when he skippered the All Blacks for the 87th time, and went on to become the first international captain to reach triple figures when his side took on Wales last year - the same opponents against whom he first captained the team 10 years previously. His win percentage as captain is a phenomenal 89%.
132 - All Blacks to have debuted since McCaw
McCaw was just 20 years old when he first pulled on the famous black jersey against Ireland on November 17, 2001, and in a sign of things to come he was named the man of the match.
His selection was actually criticised at the time, with McCaw having only played 17 times for Canterbury. Former New Zealand openside Josh Kronfeld even said: "You might as well just give the All Blacks jerseys to everyone."
The New Zealand team that day included the likes of Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens and Tana Umaga, all of whom have their own place in All Black legend, but few would have imagined that 14 years later their debutant teammate would have outshone them all.
2 - Test matches lost on home soil
It is no secret that the All Blacks are a dominant force wherever they go, but to beat them at home is something special. It is an extraordinarily rare occurrence even for the likes of Australia and South Africa, who come up against New Zealand annually in the Tri-Nations, or Rugby Championship as it is now.
McCaw played 61 times in front of his own fans, and only two of those matches ended in defeat for his side. He also reached the pinnacle of the game on home soil in 2011, ending New Zealand's 24-year wait for World Cup glory with the narrowest of wins over France in the final. Home and away, he lost just 15 of his 148 Tests for New Zealand.
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3 - World Player of the Year awards
Another all-time record. The award has understandably been dominated by All Blacks over the years, although it wasn't until 2005 - five years after Keith Wood scooped the inaugural prize - that the first New Zealander won it (Carter). McCaw had already received two nominations by that point, though, and he would go on to be put up for the highest individual honour in the sport on eight occasions - three more than the next most nominated player.
His first triumph came in 2006, when he edged out his teammate Carter, and he then became the first, and so far only, player to win it in consecutive years - 2009 and 2010. Carter equalled McCaw's tally of three victories earlier this year following his man-of-the-match display in the World Cup final, but the fly-half has 'only' been nominated for the award five times.
McCaw has also won the Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Trophy as New Zealand Player of the Year four times (2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012) and the Halberg Award for New Zealand Sportsman of the Year twice in 2010 and 2011.
135 - Test points
Surprise, surprise, it's another record. McCaw is the highest scoring forward in New Zealand's history, with his 135 points being made up of 27 tries. That total also puts him 23rd on the all-time points-scoring list for the All Blacks.
18 - Different international opponents
From the British and Irish Lions to Namibia, McCaw played and beat every team that was put in front of him as a member of the All Blacks. He ends his career with a 100% record against 14 of those 18 nations, with the only teams able to beat New Zealand with McCaw on the pitch being Australia (six times), South Africa (six times), England (twice) and France (once).
His worst win percentage came against South Africa, with 20 victories from their 26 meetings leaving him at a still-impressive 77%. He came up against Australia most often, facing the Wallabies no fewer than 37 times throughout his career - the most appearances by one player against a single international side in rugby history. He enjoyed it against the Aussies too, never losing the Bledisloe Cup as captain and claiming the trophy 10 times over the course of his career.
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2 - World Cups won
For years it seemed as though there was a curse on New Zealand when it came to the World Cup. As expected, they won the inaugural 1987 edition on home soil, but despite entering almost every other one as favourite, and being the undisputed best team in the world for the vast majority of the intervening years, they didn't triumph again until 2011.
McCaw was part of the failures in 2003 and 2007, and in 2011 the pressure could not have been greater. New Zealand are expected to win every game, particularly at home, and anything other than lifting the William Webb Ellis Trophy on its return to the country was deemed almost unthinkable. McCaw and co dealt with the pressure, though, and ended the 24-year wait with a one-point victory over France in the final. It wasn't pretty, but they had won.
Heading into this year's tournament, things were different. They were again favourites, but the questions this time focused on whether they could do it on foreign soil, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, where Rugby Championship holders Australia had traditionally reigned supreme when it came to the World Cup. The All Blacks came through with minimum fuss, however, as the old guard bowed out with a 34-17 victory over the Wallabies - the highest-scoring World Cup final ever.
In doing so, McCaw joined a select group of players to have won the game's greatest prize twice, and also became the only captain to have hoisted the trophy aloft on multiple occasions. His World Cup history-making does not stop there, though - no player has made more appearances or won more matches at the tournament. As if those two World Cup crowns were not enough, McCaw can also boast four Tri-Nations titles, three Rugby Championships and two Grand Slams.