Magnificent Eight: Paying tribute to the departing All Blacks of 2023

Dane Coles v3

In this tribute, we honour the contributions of eight departing All Blacks who have played their hearts out on the international stage. These players, each in their unique way, have shaped the legacy of New Zealand's rugby excellence, and as they pass the torch, we reflect on their remarkable journeys.

The All Blacks leaving class of 2023:

Brodie Retallick (#1110)

Debut: Saturday 9 June 2012 vs Ireland (Auckland)

Tests: 109

Points: 45 (9 tries)

At 2.04m tall, Brodie Retallick was a towering presence on the field and quickly forged a reputation as one of the leading second-rowers in the world game. Hailing from the North Canterbury town of Amberley, Retallick enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks. A member of the star-studded New Zealand Under 20 side which won the World Championships in 2011, Retallick debuted for the Chiefs in Super Rugby the following year. His first season was so impressive for the championship winning Chiefs that Retallick was quickly elevated to make his international debut in June of the same year against Ireland. Retallick quickly established himself as a regular in the All Blacks with seven starts from 13 Tests played in 2012. Retallick turned heads with an incredible 2014 season where he started in 11 tests for the All Blacks. His set-piece acumen, visibility around the park and impact with ball in hand led to him being named both the New Zealand Rugby and World Rugby Player of the Year in 2014. Retallick was a Rugby World Cup winner in 2015, playing the full 80 minutes of each game in the knock out stage of the tournament. Further accolades came in 2018, when Retallick was awarded the World Rugby Try of the Year Award after his incredible dummy earned him five points against Australia in the opening Bledisloe Cup Test in Sydney. Retallick continued to be a cornerstone for the All Blacks until his final appearance at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. He finishes his career as the All Blacks ninth most capped player and second most capped lock of all-time.

Nepo Laulala (#1139)

Debut: Wednesday 8 July 2015 vs Samoa (Apia)

Tests: 53

With a career characterised by raw power, exceptional technique, and unwavering dedication, Laulala's impact on the field has been nothing short of exceptional. Laulala made his All Blacks debut against Samoa (the country of his birth) in 2015 but it wasn’t until 2017 when the powerful tighthead became a regular fixture in the All Blacks with nine Test starts across the season. Laulala reached his 50th Test cap in the opening game of the 2023 Rugby World Cup and was called upon for the World Cup final to match strength with South Africa’s much vaunted front row. Laulala leaves a reputation as one of the greatest scrummagers to play for the side, and a genuine quiet achiever on the world stage.

Samuel Whitelock (#1104)

Debut: Saturday 12 June 2010 vs Ireland (New Plymouth)

Tests: 153

Points: 35 (seven tries)

Sam Whitelock, the epitome of rugby excellence, has etched his name into the annals of All Blacks history with 153 Tests, making him the most capped All Black of all time. A towering presence in the second row, Whitelock's career is a testament to his relentless commitment, unwavering work ethic, and remarkable talent. He has been a linchpin in the All Blacks' formidable pack since his debut in 2010, dominating lineouts, and providing invaluable leadership. Whitelock is a double Rugby World Cup winner (2011 and 2015) and captained the All Blacks in 18 Test matches. Of his 153 Tests, Whitelock started in 127. He burst on the scene in 2010 with two tries on debut from the bench against Ireland in New Plymouth and earned his first Test start in a victory over England at Twickenham later that year. Together with long-term locking partner Brodie Retallick, Whitelock also holds the world record for most Tests as a locking combination. His legacy as a true legend of the game will continue to inspire generations of players and fans alike.

Aaron Smith (#1112)

Debut: Saturday 9 June 2012 vs Ireland (Auckland)

Tests: 125

Points: 147 (29 tries, one conversion)

Aaron Smith's name resonates with excellence in the black jersey. The slick-passing and intuitive half back has earned numerous accolades across his career, including World Rugby Player of the Year nominations, the Tom French Memorial Cup winner for Māori player of the year, and a Rugby World Cup winners medal in 2015. Renowned for his lightning-quick passes and astute decision-making, he has orchestrated countless All Blacks victories over the years. Smith finishes his career as the All Blacks most-capped halfback and fifth most-capped player overall with 125 Tests. The man known as ‘Nugget’ was at the top his game right until the end, with a hat-trick of tries against Italy at the 2023 Rugby World Cup showing the 34-year-old had lost none of his pace or nose for the try-line.

Dane Coles (#1117)

Debut: Sunday 11 November 2012 vs Scotland (Edinburgh)

Tests: 90

Points: 115 (23 tries)

Renowned for his dynamic play, blistering pace, and physicality, Dane Coles redefined the role of a modern hooker. A career tally of 23 tries across 90 Tests (no front rower has scored more Test tries for the All Blacks) tells the story of a player who knew how to get over the white line. Coles’ longevity on the international stage was equally as impressive as his dynamism with ball in hand. At 36 years and 308 days old when he played his final Test against Ireland in the quarterfinal of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Coles became the second oldest All Black to play a Test match. Only Ned Hughes at 40 years and 123 days when he played against South Africa in 1921, stands ahead of Coles as the oldest ever All Black. Coles achieved many accolades throughout his career, including winning the Tom French Memorial Cup for Māori player of the year in 2016 and claiming a Rugby World Cup winners medal in 2015. The Paraparaumu-born Coles’ will be remembered for his unwavering commitment to the black jersey and infectious passion for the game.

Richie Mo’unga (#1167)

Debut: Tuesday 14 November 2017 v France XV (Lyon)

Tests: 56

Points: 464 (11 tries, 143 conversions, 41 penalties)

As a playmaker of the highest order, Richie Mo’unga's dazzling footwork, pinpoint goal kicking, and deft game management place him among the pantheon of great All Blacks first five-eighths. In Mo’unga’s first full season of Test rugby in 2018, he played understudy to Beauden Barrett, making seven appearances from the bench and starting on two occasions. In 2019, Mo’unga made the 10 jersey his own as Beauden Barrett switched to full back. Over the next five seasons, Mo’unga was the All Blacks go-to pivot for all but a handful of Tests. Christchurch-born Mo’unga finishes his career as the All Blacks fifth highest point scorer of all-time with 464 points. Only Grant Fox, Beauden Barrett, Andrew Mehrtens and Dan Carter sit ahead of him.

Shannon Frizell (#1172)

Debut: Saturday 23 June 2018 v France (Dunedin)

Tests: 33

Points: 40 (eight tries)

Since his Test debut against France in 2018, Frizell demonstrated all the key components of a quality blindside flanker – power, versatility, line out expertise and unwavering defence. At his peak, Frizell was among the best loose forwards in the world. This was no more evident than in his display in the 35-20 victory against South Africa in Auckland this year. The Tongan-born loose forward scored an incredible try, made 13 crunching tackles and was a constant threat with ball in hand for the Springboks defence. Frizell ends his All Blacks career with 33 Tests and eight tries to his name.

Leicester Fainga'anuku (#1200)

Debut: Saturday 2 July 2022 v Ireland (Auckland)

Tests: 7

Points: 25 (five tries)

At 24-years-old and with just seven Tests under his belt, there is a strong feeling the best is yet to come for Leicester Fainga’anuku. With an ability to play wing and mid-field, Fainga’anuku quickly developed into an important member of the All Blacks squad over the past two seasons. At the Rugby World Cup, Fainga’anuku crossed for five tries from four appearances to sit among the tournament’s leading try-scorers. Fainga’anuku is off to French club Toulon on a one and a half season contract until July 2025.


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