Richie McCaw always knew the perfect moment to attack the breakdown, to make a tackle or complete a pass and the All Blacks skipper demonstrated his perfect sense of timing once again on Thursday in announcing his retirement from rugby.

McCaw, who walks away as one of the game's all-time greats, ended his 14-year Test career as the most capped player (148) and captain (110) in world rugby.

The 34-year-old flanker won three World Rugby Player of the Year awards and led the All Blacks to successive World Cup victories in 2011 and 2015.

McCaw's announcement came a day after Jonah Lomu's unexpected death at the age of 40 had rocked the rugby-mad country.

McCaw paid tribute to the former All Blacks winger before confirming his widely expected decision.

"I've been hugely privileged to do what I've done for so long, been in some great teams with some great men and what happened in the World Cup just been, everything falling into place was hugely rewarding," McCaw told a news conference.

"To finish on that note I think is pretty good. The last thing I ever wanted to do was limp to the end, both in form and as your body holding together.

"Sitting here today, the body would say, 'you could still play,' so that means that I think I've got the timing right."

McCaw had done little to play down expectations he would retire after this year's World Cup, though he never explicitly said he would call it quits.

"I didn't want to make it final because I was worried the emotion might get to me in a World Cup year," he added.

"I might start thinking about 'last this', 'last that' and maybe whether I did all the things I needed to do to play my best."

McCaw's performances at the tournament were among the best of his storied career, a point not lost on coach Steve Hansen.

"I thought his last game in the World Cup final was one of the best he played," Hansen said. "Like everybody, you have to pick the right time to go and he couldn't have picked a better time.

"He has been a terrific player and leader and probably the greatest we have had."

While the debate over whether McCaw is the greatest player the game has ever seen will go on, few can claim to have performed at such a high level for so long.

"Through the whole time I was lucky enough to be coaching him, the first thing he would say at the beginning of every season is 'what can I do better?'" Hansen said.

"Then go away and work on it. He had a massive desire to be good."

McCaw, who will be 35 in December, said his immediate plan was to start work as a commercial helicopter pilot in Christchurch.

"It's something I'm passionate about," he said. "I'm excited with what's in the future. I have enjoyed my time as a rugby player but I am looking forward to what's coming.

"I guess it's the end of a chapter and the start of a new one. But it has been a hell of a ride."

His retirement signals the end of an era in All Blacks rugby with six other players who have helped the side become the most successful in world rugby retiring or heading offshore for lucrative contracts to end their playing careers.

McCaw joins fellow test centurions Keven Mealamu (132 caps) and Tony Woodcock (118) in hanging up their boots, while Daniel Carter (112), Ma'a Nonu (103) and Conrad Smith (94) have also ended their New Zealand careers by joining clubs in France.

Since 2004, when those six players cemented their place in the side, the All Blacks have won 137 of 157 tests, losing 18 and drawing two.

Under Hansen, who took over following the 2011 World Cup, they have won 49 of their 54 matches.