Inspirational double World Cup-winning All Blacks captain Richie McCaw announced his immediate retirement on Thursday after a record 148 Tests, with a new career beckoning as a commercial helicopter pilot.
“I’m going to be hanging up my boots, the end of my rugby days,” the 34-year-old said after opening his press conference with a minute’s silence for All Black legend Jonah Lomu, who died on Wednesday.
McCaw, a three-time World Rugby player of the year, last month became the only captain to ever claim back-to-back World Cups, the pinnacle of a career that has seen him anointed as one of the all-time greats.
McCaw said the time felt right to retire after the 34-17 win over Australia in the tournament decider at Twickenham.
“That last game, to have that as the lasting memory of the last time on the pitch — pretty satisfying,” he said.
During a 15-year career, McCaw earned an unprecedented 148 Test caps, a feat made all the more impressive because he did it in the gruelling role of flanker.
New Zealand Rugby chief Steve Tew said McCaw was the best player he had ever signed.
“Richie’s been the most influential player of his generation, if not of all time,” Tew said.
“His playing statistics tell the story, but Richie has also made a very significant contribution off the field as well.”
Former Wallaby flanker Phil Waugh, one of McCaw’s fiercest rivals at the breakdown, said the New Zealander would be remembered as the greatest ever.
“He’s the best rugby player of all time,” Waugh told Fox Sports. “He’s won more trophies and medals than any other player.”
Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver called him “one of the all-time greats of our game and the greatest ever All Blacks captain”.
– ‘Hell of a ride’ -McCaw said he would eventually become involved in rugby again but for now would “step back”.
“It’s has been a hell of a ride,” he said. “I don’t sit here sad, I actually sit here just happy with what I’ve done, the experiences I’ve had and looking forward to what’s in the future.”
A keen aviator, he revealed plans for a post-rugby career as a commercial helicopter pilot.
“I am hugely passionate about it, it will never replace the thrill of running out in front of 80,000 but it is not far short of it,” he said.
McCaw has already been in action since the World Cup, using a chopper to help South Island winegrowers save their crops from early-morning frost off the grapes.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen joked that McCaw “couldn’t catch, couldn’t pass, couldn’t run” when he first saw him playing as a “pimply-faced schoolboy”.
But Hansen said the outgoing skipper turned himself into a legend through sheer hard work.
“You’ve got to pick the right time to go and he couldn’t have picked a better time,” he said.
“He is on top of the heap, he’s made his own decision and we’ll be forever grateful for what he has done for the All Blacks.”
Asked to nominate a three career highlights, McCaw picked his Test debut in 2001, his second World Cup win and, surprisingly, a shock quarter-final loss to France in the 2007 World Cup.
McCaw faced damning criticism of his captaincy in the wake of the defeat but said the lessons learned were the foundation for subsequent success.
“That may be a weird one to pick out, but that’s certainly made the last few years really enjoyable for what we’ve achieved,” he said.
Amid the tributes, rivals were also hoping McCaw’s departure would make the All Blacks more vulnerable, particularly since fellow greats such as Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Keven Mealamu are also leaving.
“Losing Richie, they’ll lose an aura around him and that leadership, which is very difficult to replace,” Waugh said.
The Sydney Morning Herald agreed, saying arch-rivals Australia were on the rise just as the All Blacks faced “a seismic changing of the guards”.
“Without McCaw, the All Blacks lose their cloak of invincibility, such was his presence on the field,” it said.