Rugby World Cup: All Blacks given chance to farewell some of New Zealand's greatest with final victory

Now with their place in the Rugby World Cup final secure, the All Blacks have the chance to farewell some legends of the game in perfect style.

Regardless of the result at Stade de France next week, a core of some of their greatest players will call time on their careers in the black jersey. Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick have all signed deals to play in Japan to all but finish their playing days.

Sam Whitelock and Nepo Laulala will head to France with Pau and Toulouse respectively, while Richie Mo'unga, Shannon Frizell (Japan) and Leicester Fainga'anuku (France) have both signed short-term contracts, with no guarantees they will return to the All Blacks.

Richie Mo'unga against Argentina.
Richie Mo'unga against Argentina. Photo credit: Getty Images

Hooker Dane Coles will buck that trend, retiring altogether after the final whistle on Sunday.

Five of those players - Smith, Whitelock, Barrett, Retallick and Coles - have already won the World Cup, Whitelock twice, and all but Coles (89) have logged more than 100 tests. Whitelock has overtaken Richie McCaw as New Zealand's most-capped player.

Those in the class of 2023 who will return to the All Blacks next year are highly motivated to ensure the departees sign off as world champions.

"For me, it's more of a vision for the older dogs in the team, who've been here before and have led the pathway for us younger boys to have a good week, and send them out on a high," said flanker Dalton Papali'i.

"A lot of them are leaving, so it's an opportunity for us. It's going to be a big one."

While Smith, Barrett, Retallick and Coles will play a second World Cup final, and Whitelock his third, Papali'i is among the core of players facing their first.

At times over the last four years, a World Cup final would have seemed beyond reach for the All Blacks, but now, despite all the outside noise, coach Ian Foster's side have proved their doubters wrong and sit one win away from the game's ultimate glory.  

Papali'i, 26, doesn't take the chance for granted.

"You play rugby for these moments, this is the pinnacle," he added. "This is the moment on top of the mountain that everyone chases and want to be.

"So many players play their whole career and don't get an opportunity to play this game.

"This is it, do or die. It's been like that for the last couple of weeks now.  

"We know we've got to win moment by moment, that's why I think we've been tracking in the right direction. 

"Each moment that comes up, we've got to win it. If we build that, we put out good performances."

For much of this World Cup, the All Blacks have taken a backseat to other sides in direct competition. Grouped in the same side of the draw as World Cup holders South Africa, hosts France and now former world No.1 Ireland, they were outsiders at best to reach this year's final.

As Papali'i explains, being outsiders played exactly into the All Blacks' hands.

"I think it was a blessing in disguise for us," he added. "Coming into this, we were going under the radar.

Sam Whitelock.
Sam Whitelock. Photo credit: Getty Images

"You were looking at other teams like France, England, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Those were the talking points.

"We adopted the mindset of flying under the radar. Now look at us, we're here.

"It's a credit to ourselves, but the job's not done. We've got one more week for greatness and we're looking forward to it."

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