Record-breaking Richie McCaw farewelled Eden Park a champion last night.
Playing in his 142nd test for the All Blacks — and becoming the most-capped player in international rugby history — "Captain Fantastic" inspired the men in black to a 41-13 victory in the Bledisloe Cup decider.
In front of a capacity crowd of almost 50,000 fans in what was expected to be his final test in New Zealand, the 34-year-old again highlighted why he is one of our all-time favourite sporting warriors.
A chorus of cheers marked McCaw's entry to the Eden Park arena pre-match.
The cheering was even louder after full time when coach Steve Hansen presented McCaw a commemorative jersey, and the captain held aloft the Bledisloe Cup.
In pubs and living rooms the length and breadth of the nation — as well as in the stands at Eden Park — fans paid tribute to a man who has put his body on the line for his country since 2001.
"Richie is a great player, but he's more than just that.
"He's an ambassador for this country and what a job he has done for New Zealand," Dennis Wilson said, who had travelled from Whangarei for the match.
"He will be remembered in the same breath as Sir Colin Meads.
"A lot of people say Richie is the face of this generation of the All Blacks. But I'd say that's not right. I'd say Richie is the face of rugby's professional era. He is the epitome of a leader.
"He'll push the laws at times but he's an honest man who plays with pride, respect and for his country. It's an incredibly special night to be here."
Others, like the Kahui family of John, Roreta and their 10-year-old son Reuben, hit the road at 10am yesterday to make sure they witnessed McCaw's milestone moment.
"We came from Taumarunui so we had a four-hour drive to get here," John Kahui said.
"But we weren't going to miss this for the world.
"We came as a family just to see Richie play this game. Who knows where this team would be without him?"
After a stuttering start from the men in black, the bumper crowd — which included Victoria Cross winner Willie Apiata, who earlier in the week spent time in the All Black camp — came to life in the 24th minute when hooker Dane Coles sprinted almost 40m for the first try of the match.
The All Blacks enjoyed a 13-6 lead over the Wallabies at half time.
The Bledisloe Cup was locked up for another season within 10 minutes of the restart after the All Blacks were awarded a penalty try and then Ma'a Nonu crossed the line.
The timing of the victory couldn't have been better, ensuring the All Blacks will head to next month's Rugby World Cup in the UK on a winning note, after their gutting 27-19 loss to the Wallabies in Sydney last weekend.
The win also provided a fitting Eden Park farewell for Nonu, Daniel Carter, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith and Tony Woodcock.
Squad member Charles Piutau is also leaving New Zealand rugby, but failed to make the cut for last night's test.
Carter and Smith marked their Eden Park farewells with blinders. Both test veterans were widely criticised after last weekend's loss to the Wallabies in Sydney.
The latest Bledisloe Cup series victory — the All Blacks' 13th in a row — extends two other extraordinary records for the mighty men in black in Auckland.
No team has beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park since France in 1994, and the Wallabies have to wind the clock back to 1986 for the last time they tasted victory there.
Tributes for McCaw
As the rugby world celebrated his 142nd test appearance for the All Blacks, the
Herald on Sunday
spoke to some of our most prominent New Zealanders about the latest achievement in the 34-year-old's amazing sporting career.
"Without a doubt he is the greatest All Black of all time. I am convinced that in my lifetime there will not be another player who will captain New Zealand for as many tests, or play as many tests for the All Blacks. He is a remarkable athlete, an outstanding leader and a truly great New Zealander.
John Key, Prime Minister
"Richie is our indefatigable hero. I was at the Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park and although Stephen Donald clinched it with the kick, it was the spirit of McCaw that really won it. You could have rolled him over with a tank and he would not give up. I have never seen anything like it."
Robyn Malcolm, actress
"I am one of Richie's biggest fans. In fact, we've been in the midst of a fabulous love affair for quite a few years now. I'm not sure if Richie knows about our relationship, but as far as I'm concerned it's been amazing."
Rachel Smalley, radio host
Richie McCaw is a very, very special New Zealander. His amazing test match record is a just reward for an unbelievable career and underlines his huge durability as one of the world's greatest players.
"An outstanding player and captain and he has to be one of the greatest to wear the All Blacks jersey. I hope Richie goes out with a farewell performance he deserves — as a winner at the Rugby World Cup final."
— John Hart, former All Blacks coach
"I have seen for myself how part of his charm is the way he interacts with the fans and his connectivity with the community is immense. He is a legend. There is even a very small part of me that would like to see Richie and the All Blacks defend their World Cup in the final."
— Nick Farr-Jones, World Cup-winning former Wallaby captain
"Richie has a big ticker and my congratulations go out to him. He has always had an extreme hunger for the game and has proven he can take the big knocks and just keep going. This attitude still shines through."
— Sir Richard Hadlee, Kiwi cricket great
"Richie is everything most Kiwis want to be but fail to reach. His humility is endearing, like when he turned down a knighthood saying it wasn't the right time. Not many people would do that because some of us are a little bit greedy."
— Mike King, comedian
Richie is a great Kiwi leader and a fantastic guy. He is a credit to all New Zealand sport, not just rugby. He is a world-class ambassador.
"This weekend marks another huge achievement for Richie in a quite astounding playing career. I am sure everyone who played for Kurow with Richie in those early days, along with the entire community, are immensely proud. Congratulations, Richie."
— Chris Linwood, Former Kurow junior team-mate
"There are many things that go into a true leader: guts, determination, a vision with a plan for how to get there and the ability to take others with you. Richie McCaw has taken the whole country with him over the 142 matches of his remarkable test career. He has drive in spades and a down-to-earth Kiwi warmth that makes him what we call a bloody good bloke. It was great meeting up with him in Samoa last month and I can't wait to see him lift the Rugby World Cup in London in October."
— Andrew Little, Labour Party leader
"What I like about Richie is he is a glider pilot. I think of him soaring like an eagle above New Zealand alone in his plane, away from the pressures and passions of rugby. There is no one else around to drop the ball and he is in control of his own destiny. He is a big hero on a number of levels."
— Te Radar, comedian and TV host
"McCaw is an outstanding man, leader, and New Zealander who happens to be a pretty handy rugby player! This latest achievement just confirms his impressive skills and qualities, and his pre-eminent place in our sporting history."
— Sir Jerry Mateparae, Governor-General
Richie has played 142 tests and every performance was out of the top drawer. He is an outstanding New Zealander and the best All Black we've ever had.
"As an All Black and Crusaders rugby fan, I feel like I've spent half my life cheering on Richie McCaw. He hasn't quite been around that long, but there's no denying his stature in the game. For my money he is the greatest All Black we've ever had, and therefore the greatest player the world's ever had!"
— Mike McRoberts, TV3 News presenter
"Richie is simply one of the greatest All Blacks of all time. I would consider him to be a modern day Colin Meads."
— Norm Hewitt, former All Black
"Richie is a good guy as well as a great footballer. He has had an amazing career and should be very proud of himself as a player and a New Zealander."
— Sir Brian Lochore, former All Blacks great
"He is a dedicated, loyal and intelligent sportsman who we enjoyed having at Canterbury for part of his career. He led the Crusaders and led the All Blacks to the World Cup, and he still has the world at his feet."
— Dick Tayler, Commonwealth Games 10,000m champ and Canterbury rugby supporters club boss
"He is so courageous, yet so humble and is a man who is always looking to improve. He is first out the shed and last on the bus. He made others come up to his standards. This has been immensely important to the All Blacks."
— Ian Jones, former All Black
There isn't a rugby player more adored than our Richie. He's a national hero — strong and courageous but also humble and altruistic. Well done Richie on an incredible achievement — we salute you.
"To me he's simply the greatest All Black. The toughest, fittest and hardest. 142 brutal and physical full test matches. He's been to war for his country. At times fighting with one functioning foot."
— Duncan Garner, radio host
"I think all the kids up here just see Richie as theirs. He is Kurow's most famous kid."
— Deidre Senior, Waitaki Valley School principal
"He is just a genuine bloke."
— Judy McDonald, Kurow fish-and-chip shop owner
"'Richie's done so much for rugby in New Zealand. I don't think anyone comes close to him. When I grew up, we had guys like Lochore and Meads. They were massive. But Richie McCaw is ahead of them."
— Ross Paton, Kurow Rugby Club president
"A leader that others want to follow. Richie is uncompromising and pushes the boundaries to the nth degree. Fair but tough. Winners want the ball and they want to charge forward when others are crippled by fear ... In the heat of competition, when his teammates are looking for someone to grab the game by the scruff of the neck — up steps Richie."
— Jenny-May Coffin, broadcaster and former Silver Fern