As is often the case, the end of a Rugby World Cup cycle has led to a number of players announcing their retirement from test rugby in 2023.
While some didn’t make it that far, notably the most-capped men’s player of all-time Alun Wyn Jones, Men’s Rugby World Cup 2023 was an opportunity for others to bow out on the game’s biggest stage.
While short of Jones’ world record tally of 171 caps – 158 for Wales and 13 for the British and Irish Lions –New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and England’s Ben Youngs joined the retired centurions class of 2023 as their countries’ record caps holders.
Both are continuing to play club rugby post-RWC 2023, but Whitelock, who is second to Jones in the overall top appearances list, won’t be adding to his 153 caps anytime soon unless he has a change of heart at 35 years of age.
Whitelock overtook Richie McCaw’s All Blacks record in France, while England’s bronze medal win against Argentina was Youngs’ 127th and final appearance for his country.
"I feel unbelievably proud and privileged to have done this for so long," Youngs said once the curtain had been drawn on his stellar career. "The memories and team-mates I’ve made along the way, as well as all the highs and lows, have helped shape me into the person I am today.”
"Rollercoaster of emotions"
Whitelock and Youngs were not the only centurions to announce that RWC 2023 would be their swansong, far from it.
Whitelock’s long-time team-mate Aaron Smith, one of the best scrum-halves to ever play the game, was another for whom RWC 2023 was a line in the sand, New Zealand’s defeat in the final to South Africa being the last of his 124 tests.
Johnny Sexton, who passed Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s all-time record points scorer at the tournament, retired from all forms of rugby after their quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks.
Sexton’s career included 119 caps for Ireland, 1,113 points, four Six Nations titles for Ireland and four Champions Cup titles for Leinster.
“Retirement is never an easy next step for any professional athlete. It is especially hard after the rollercoaster of emotions from the last few weeks in France,” he wrote in a statement.
“The sadness and frustration we couldn’t progress further remain, they will for a long time to come but the overarching feeling is the pride I felt playing with such a committed and talented group of players. The best group I have been lucky enough to be a part of ... ... on and off the pitch. Leaving these players and these coaches is what is making retirement so tough.”
Keith Earls, another enduring member of that Ireland group, also called it quits after 101 caps and four Men’s Rugby World Cups, while Dan Biggar, a contemporary of Sexton’s for so many years, will no longer be seen orchestrating play for Wales in the test arena.
Veteran full-back Leigh Halfpenny is another with three feathers on his chest to make it to three figures to announce their retirement this year, while Courtney Lawes has decided his race is run after representing England no less than 105 times, in the back row and second row, and the British and Irish Lions on six occasions.
Outside of the domain of the Six Nations/Rugby Championship, Romania scrum-half Florin Surugiu signed off on a high in France, scoring against Tonga in his 104th and final test.
Like Jones, RWC 2023 was a bridge too far for some centurions with their retirement from test rugby announced before the tournament in France began.
Sergio Parisse, fourth on the all-time caps list with 142 appearances, was denied one big final hurrah due to his advancing years and has since moved into coaching, while Scotland’s record try-scorer Stuart Hogg was another who came to the conclusion that his body had been through enough.
Meanwhile, one of the most recognisable names in Romanian rugby, Mihai Macovei, was denied the opportunity to play in France because of a calf injury, leaving him level with Oaks’ team-mate, Surugiu, on 104 caps.
All good things come to an end and I’ve had the absolute best…. pic.twitter.com/uPFJq8wudT— Sarah Hunter (@sarah_hunter8) March 21, 2023
Hunter gets perfect send-off
In the women’s game, there are far fewer caps centurions but for two of the special septet, Sarah Hunter and Sara Barattin, 2023 was the year they finally brought the curtain down on their long and successful careers.
Red Roses legend Hunter was the first of the two to bow out having been given the winning send-off she deserved in March. Her farewell test was played in her hometown of Newcastle at Kingston Park, as England scored 10 tries in a 58-7 win against Scotland.
The number eight, who departed to a great ovation from her team-mates, coaches and family on the pitch and in the stands after 58 minutes – retired with a record 141 caps to her name, having enjoyed a highly-decorated, 16-year career, which included 10 Six Nations titles, a Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 winner’s medal and the World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Year award in 2016.
Having initially called time on her career on the eve of the Women’s Six Nations 2023 alongside 90-cap Azzurre team-mate Manuela Furlan, scrum-half Sara Barattin did a U-turn and made herself available for the tournament.
Barattin played in five games to take her overall tally of caps to 116, placing her third behind Hunter and Rocky Clark in the all-time list, before confirming her retirement for good.