The final home test before the World Cup carries special significance for a substantial contingent of senior All Blacks players and coaches.
At this point – four days out from Saturday’s return assignment against the Wallabies in Dunedin – the All Blacks are yet to discuss the last test on New Zealand soil for a swag of revered loyal servants.
Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock, Richie Mo’unga, Brodie Retallick, Dane Coles, Shannon Frizell, Nepo Laulala and Beauden Barrett (who could yet return to New Zealand rugby after signing a one-year deal in Japan in 2024) are departing the All Blacks following the World Cup in France.
Up to six of that esteemed group - containing four centurions and combining for 686 test caps - could feature in some capacity this weekend.
As the All Blacks prepare to usher in widespread changes that will include rookies Dallas McLeod, Samipeni Finau and, possibly, Shaun Stevenson after locking away the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup last week, many of those veterans could be rested.
Those selected to rematch the Wallabies will, however, be intent on savouring one last home ride in the black jersey.
The same theme is true for many of the long-serving All Blacks management.
With Scott Roberston set to assume charge after the World Cup, this test marks the final at home for Ian Foster’s 11-year involvement with the All Blacks that includes eight years as assistant before succeeding Steve Hansen in 2020.
Foster’s assistant coaches Joe Schmidt, Greg Feek and Scott McLeod are finishing at the end of this year. So, too, manager Darren Shand and mental skills expert Gilbert Enoka.
While the Dunedin farewell hasn’t been mentioned as such, subconsciously everyone within the All Blacks is well aware that sentiment hovers in the background.
“There hasn’t been any talk about it as yet but I’m sure a lot of the boys have thought about that,” All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor said. “Playing at home is always special so all going well hopefully some of those lads get a crack to go out there, represent their country and finish their careers in New Zealand on a high. That would be nice.”
Versatile Chiefs loose forward Luke Jacobson, who featured off the bench in his first test since November, 2021, in the dominant Melbourne victory, expressed his desire to honour the soon-to-be-departing crew by continuing the All Blacks momentum this year.
“It hasn’t been talked about but everyone knows there’s legends of the game that will be playing their last tests and also management who will be in their last tests in New Zealand,” Jacobson noted as the All Blacks trained in Christchurch on Tuesday. “We don’t focus on that too much but hopefully we can do a good job out there and send them off well.
“It was awesome to be back out there last week. I had a hiatus last year. I might have forgotten how quick it was. It was a good time to come on as the boys had a good roll on and had taken some sting out of their pack.
“We’ve come out in three different games and put in decent shifts that we can be proud of but as an All Blacks team we’ve got to keep looking for that next bit of growth. The review has been thorough so there’s things we can try to nail down this week.”
For fringe prospects such as Jacobson and halfback Finlay Christie, the latter competing with Cam Roigard, Brad Weber and Folau Fakatava for two spots behind Smith, Saturday is the final audition before the World Cup squad naming on Monday.
“You can only do what you can do and take the opportunities you get given,” Jacobson said. “I’ve been trying to focus on training and then take my chances. I was reasonably happy on the weekend so if I get another crack I’ve got to do the same.”