The Graham Henry, 2011 Rugby World Cup era ended in triumph. But tonight a new era begins when the All Blacks take on Ireland at Eden Park; the Steve Hansen era.
As we noted the other day when Hansen's first All Black team was named, there's a nice mix of experience and new talent. We doubt that either Ali Williams or Piri Weepu will feature in 2015, but with their experience, they will be valuable as the past transitions into the future.
And there is plenty of experience in the run-on XV; Richie McCaw will continue to extend his record for test caps, Daniel Carter becomes our most capped first five-eighth when he plays his 86th test match; a remarkable number in itself given a broken leg against the Lions in 2005, a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2009 and last year's RWC-ending groin injury. Add to the mix seasoned veterans such as Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock, Kieran Reid, Owen Franks and Conrad Smith, and there is big-match experience in abundance.
That will be crucial for the young players debuting tonight. Aaron Smith is the fastest passing All Black halfback since the Graeme Bachop days in the mid-90's, Julian Savea has really exploded onto the scene this season with some powerhouse performances for the Hurricans, and Brodie Retallick has had a wonderful season at the Chiefs. The second-youngest All Black lock of all time (to Mark Cooksley), Retallick has the enormous boots of Brad Thorn to fill; a huge, almost impossible ask, but also a challenge that he will relish.
The Irish team is missing a few key players, most notably lock Paul O'Connell and prop Mike Ross. Brian O'Driscoll returns to the side after missing the Six Nations and is a class act, but we can't help but wonder if he might struggle to contain Sonny Bill Williams. O'Driscoll is one of the greats of the game, but may just have lost his edge.
There are less than 1000 tickets still available for tonight's match, so worries about a mediocre crowd have been well and truly overcome, and it should be a terrific night at Eden Park. Ireland will have fond memories of their gutsy victory aganist the hapless Wallabies at Eden Park during RWC 2011, but they might not have the crowd so much on their side tonight.