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In the moments after the Rugby World Cup final in 2015 Richie McCaw indicated it would be hard to walk away from the All Blacks but ultimately he knew it was over.
He wasn’t alone. Tony Woodcock, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Keven Mealamu, Ma’a Nonu left with him. Jerome Kaino and Julian Savea would hang around for just two more years.
They were never replaced and how could they be? Some of them are all-time greats. A defining chapter for All Blacks rugby ended after that win at Twickenham four years ago, not against Wales in the third place playoff in Tokyo on Friday.
If you measure eras by players and not coaches, Steve Hansen left four years after the golden one had already ended. Perhaps he knew it, but the coach who deeply loved the All Blacks carried on, backing his ability to pick winners at the selection table. But you cannot manufacture greatness from thin air, and without it the mistakes you make are magnified.
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Even at the close of this Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks are still looking for definitive answers at No 10, No 12 and No 6, the positions where Carter, Nonu and Kaino symbolised their tactical and physical superiority over the rest of the world.
The first cracks
The first sign that something was not quite right was the 40-29 loss to Ireland in Chicago in 2016.
After thrashing everyone in a poor Rugby Championship with Beauden Barrett apparently unstoppable at No 10 the All Blacks went to the USA in high spirits.
However, when the pressure really came on the All Blacks were found wanting. Despite starting badly against Ireland, the All Blacks clawed their way back into the game and with 16 minutes left they only trailed 33-29.
It was all set up for one of their famous late comebacks, but the All Blacks cracked and it was Ireland who finished the stronger. The All Blacks exacted their revenge in Dublin two weeks later in a hugely physical test but rounded off their tour with a narrow 24-19 win against France. The first little cracks were showing if you looked hard enough.
The British and Irish Lions saw them. They put the All Blacks under pressure in the second and third tests in 2017 and Kieran Read’s side wasn’t clinical enough to take the chances that they created.
The controversial end to the third test, when referee Romain Poite famously reversed a penalty that would have given the All Blacks a chance to win the series, papered over the cracks but Eddie Jones must have been quietly encouraged by what he saw.
The decline of Super Rugby
At the end of the Lions series three more All Blacks departed, joining Kaino in France. Aaron
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