By Greg Stutchbury
TOKYO (Reuters) – Both head coaches, one captain and a host of other players will be saying farewell to test rugby on Friday when New Zealand and Wales meet in the third-place playoff at the Rugby World Cup, with both sides also seeking a little redemption.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen is stepping down after 16 years with the side, eight as an assistant under Graham Henry and eight as head coach, after the game at Tokyo Stadium that kicks off at 6 p.m. (0800 GMT).
Warren Gatland, meanwhile, is leaving the Wales job after 12 years in charge to take over at his hometown club, the Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand.
Both men will walk away with solid coaching credentials.
Hansen has been involved with an All Blacks side that has set the bar for professional teams over the last 15 years and had an unparalleled run of success, while Gatland steered Wales to four Six Nations titles and brought greater depth and standards to the side.
In addition, All Blacks captain Kieran Read and several other veterans, Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams, are likely to be pulling on the jersey for the final time.
Both sides will also be keen to put the disappointment of losing last weekend behind them, with the All Blacks missing out on the chance of a third successive title and Wales yet to reach their first final.
Wales have added motivation as they have not beaten the All Blacks since 1953, a run of 30 matches.
“They (Wales players) are disappointed not to be in the final but have the chance to create a little bit of history against the All Blacks,” Gatland said on Wednesday.
“It has been a long time, 66 years, not to beat a side. We have had success against every other nation. There is definitely something at stake – a lot of pride – and a victory for us would be pretty special.”
While many pundits, fans and perhaps even players have wondered at the purpose of third-place playoffs, the All Blacks have made clear it is still a test match against Wales.
“It’s an important test match for a number of reasons,” Hansen said. “One, we’ve just come off a loss. Two, it’s Wales and we’ve got a history with them that we need to keep feeding.
“We’ve got a legacy and a responsibility to that legacy.”
Hansen therefore selected all of his veteran players who are leaving New Zealand rugby after Friday’s match, with Read leading the side in his 127th test.
Wales, however, have been severely affected by injuries, and Gatland has had no choice but to make nine changes to the side that were pipped by South Africa.
“It wasn’t really difficult at all because we didn’t have huge choice in the backs,” Gatland said.
“Some guys, we realise this will probably be the last World Cup game. We recognise that and we’ve just made a couple of changes to freshen the legs as well.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Hugh Lawson)