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Champions possess the talent to move on without legends

By Jonathan Bradley

In the aftermath of a depleted Ireland's World Cup exit two weeks ago, a debate raged for days over whether any team could have survived the loss of an experienced quintet of players, like Joe Schmidt did that day, and still thrive.

Thanks to New Zealand you expect we are about to find that there's at least one who can.

As the best team in the world, and arguably ever, bids farewell to a core that has been central to its success over two World Cup cycles, there is a temptation to dub Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith - hooker Keven Mealamu also retires - as irreplaceable.

It certainly seemed so on Saturday as the veterans' presence saw the Kiwis become the first team to defend the Webb Ellis trophy.

A brief, but spirited, renaissance from Australia threatened to spoil the Twickenham coronation party but it was the irrepressible Carter who kept his head when all around were losing theirs.

After Michael Cheika's men took full advantage of a yellow card for Ben Smith to turn a lost cause into a four-point deficit, it was the Racing Metro-bound out-half who dropped a goal under pressure and from a testing position.

From 112 Tests to his name, it's a feat Carter has pulled off on just eight occasions - even if Ireland fans remember his 2012 effort all too well - but, with the stakes at their most heart-stopping, two have come in the last two weeks.

The image that will endure from his man-of-the-match farewell is surely the 33-year-old roaring the ball through the posts with just 10 minutes remaining, while it was his nerveless, half-way line penalty that made it a two-score game and sealed the deal.

Smith had long since departed by this stage, his 40 minutes of action providing plenty of evidence of just what the All Blacks will be missing and fans of Pau have to look forward to, and it was Nonu who had seemingly made the game safe some half hour before.

The centre, who if anything is getting better with age, will now join the glittering array of stars at Toulon but provided a final salvo to savour in the second-half as he stepped Kurtley Beale and burned Drew Mitchell on the outside to score.

While McCaw grabbed fewer headlines, the captain battled gamely against the Australian breakdown experts of David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy in what was a ferocious contest on the deck.

Frighteningly, for those expecting to challenge for the crown in 2019 however, the next generation of stars are ready and waiting.

Sonny Bill Williams - the centre whose embrace of South Africa's Jesse Kriel after the semi-final and decision to hand his winners medal to a 14-year-old fan tackled by security led to him becoming one of the tournament's darlings - has shown plenty over the last number of weeks to suggest he is the man to build a midfield around.

The code-hopper's talents have been known for years but his offloading ability in the opening minutes of the second-half were, again, a sight to behold.

Malakai Fekitoa is a fine candidate to join him in the centre.

With the injured Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and left at home Lima Sopoaga providing the options to assume Carter's mantle, Sam Cane will relish the challenge of filling McCaw's seven jersey going forward

Even with such talent exiting the scene, the All Blacks aren't likely to take a backwards step.

Belfast Telegraph


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