The magnificent seven is getting ready to ride off into the sunset. "I hope he packs a bag up with bugger all in it and disappears – goes somewhere where no-one knows anything about rugby and he gets left alone," Steve Hansen said of his captain fantastic after Richie McCaw had inspired the all-conquering All Blacks to a 20th successive match without defeat. Unfortunately for England, New Zealand's openside flanker has one final mission to accomplish before he drops off the radar for six months.
The home XV at Twickenham this Saturday stand between the All Black totem and a calendar year of invincibility. "Oh, it will be a big challenge," McCaw said, turning from what proved to be a routine 33-10 success in Cardiff to the final leg of the end of year European tour. "England lost against South Africa so they'll be pretty keen to turn that round. Mentally, we've got to be on the job so we can put in a performance. That's the challenge and it's a challenge that this group enjoy. You've got to back up performance after performance and next week's another opportunity to do that."
No player in world rugby is better in the back-to-back performance department than the man who guided New Zealand to victory in the World Cup a year ago while virtually on one leg. McCaw was at his magnificent best on Saturday, unstoppable at the breakdown, as New Zealand – shorn of Dan Carter – racked up 33 unanswered points in 58 minutes (courtesy of tries from forwards Liam Messam, Tony Woodcock and Luke Romano and 18 points from the boot of Aaron Cruden) before an injury-ravaged Welsh team salvaged pride with a party piece of a score from a 15-man lineout drive, claimed by centre Scott Williams, and a late try by Alex Cuthbert.
It was McCaw's 102nd win in 115 Tests as an All Black. Approaching his 32nd birthday, the great Crusader needs a break if he is to remain the dynamo in the New Zealand machine when it comes to defend the World Cup on these shores three years hence.
"Next week will be my last game until the middle of next year," he said. "Physically, I don't think it's a problem. It's just to refresh a little bit. I've been on the treadmill I suppose for a while now. I was given the opportunity and I thought it was the right thing."
Hansen added: "Richie just needs a bit of 'me time'. The World Cup was massive for him and since the World Cup it's been massive too. He just needs the chance to enjoy life without being in that spotlight all the time. I'm not sure where he'll be able to go where no-one knows him, but we'll do him a bit of research and buy him a ticket."
One can only hope that McCaw will not repeat Keith Murdoch's famous vanishing trick after scoring the winning try in New Zealand's 19-16 win against Wales at the Arms Park in 1972. The giant Otago prop assaulted a hotel security guard at the Angel Hotel and team manager Ernie Todd bought him a ticket home "for his own good". Forty years on, Murdoch still hasn't arrived. He changed planes and disappeared into the Australian Outback.
The chances are that the 2012 All Blacks will be missing one of their front rowers at Twickenham. Hooker Andrew Hore escaped punishment for the short-arm punch from behind that concussed Bradley Davies in the opening minute on Saturday but was cited last night and can expect a suspension more substantial than the initial one-match slap on the wrist that flanker Adam Thomson was given for his stamp on Alasdair Strokosch at Murrayfield a fortnight ago. The date and time of the hearing is yet to be announced.
Hansen said that he had "only seen a quick replay", adding: "it looked like he was going in to clean out the Welshman in front of him." The one-time Wales head coach, however, conceded that a citing was "probable." "It's unfortunate that it's happened and no doubt there's more to be talked about," he said.
In anticipation of disciplinary action, and with Keven Mealamu recovering from a calf problem, Hansen yesterday called up Hika Elliot as a hooking option to the rookie Dane Coles. He also added utility back Tom Taylor to his squad. According to Hansen, Carter has a "50-50" chance of recovering from the Achilles problem that prompted his withdrawal from the starting XV for Cardiff.
As for Wales, beaten in all three of their autumn Tests thus far, they have considerable patching up to be done before their finale against the Wallabies on Saturday. With Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones and George North already out of commission, they lost Davies, prop Aaron Jarvis (knee) and centre Jamie Roberts (hip) inside the opening quarter on Saturday.
Asked about the punch that felled Davies, Wales's head coach Warren Gatland said: "I'll leave it to the citing commissioner to have a look at. You don't usually associate the All Blacks as a side that resort to cheap shots and I hope that's not the case."
Wales : Tries S Williams, Cuthbert. New Zealand: Tries Messam, Woodock, Romano; Conversions Cruden 3; Penalties Cruden 4.
Wales: L Halfpenny (Blues); A Cuthbert (Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Blues), L Williams (Scarlets); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonne); P James (Bath), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jarvis (Ospreys), B Davies (Blues), L Charteris (Perpignan), R Jones (Ospreys), S Warburton (Blues, capt), T Faletau (Dragons).
Replacements: A Shingler (Blues) for B Davies, 2; S Andrews (Blues) for Jarvis, 2; S Williams (Scarlets) for Roberts, 19; J Tipuric (Ospreys) for Jones, 50; G Jenkins (Toulon) for James, 55;T Knoyle (Scarlets) for Phillips, 55; J Hook (Perpignan) for Priestland, 68.
New Zealand: I Dagg (Crusaders); C Jane (Hurricanes), C Smith (Hurricanes), M Nonu (Highlanders), J Savea (Hurricanes); A Cruden (Chiefs), A Smith (Highlanders); T Woodcock (Highlanders), A Hore (Highlanders), O Franks (Crusaders), L Romano (Crusaders), S Whitelock (Crusaders), L Messam (Chiefs), R McCaw (Crusaders, capt), K Read (Crusaders).
Replacements: P Weepu (Blues) for A Smith, 50; W Crockett (Crusaders) for Woodcock, 50; D Coles (Hurricanes) for Hore, 55; B Retallick (Chiefs) for Romano, 56; C Faumuina (Cheifs) for Franks, 61; V Vito (Hurricanes) for Messam, 70; B Smith (Highlanders) for Savea, 76.
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).