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A 'gumpy' Sam Whitelock got Most Improved Player four years running before settling on rugby

By Sam Smith
The loss to Ireland represented Sam Whitelock's first as captain. (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Sam Whitelock may have racked up 143 tests and won two Rugby World Cups for the All Blacks, but rugby wasn’t always the sport he loved.

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Whitelock’s grandfather and great-uncle both played for the All Blacks, making the family a proud rugby-minded group which manifested throughout the Whitelock generations – each of Sam’s three brothers has donned a New Zealand rugby jersey, whether it be the All Blacks or All Black sevens.

And so despite rugby seemingly being in the Whitelock genes, Sam revealed on The Good, The Bad and The Rugby podcast that his first love involved a round ball instead of the oval one that fans know him for.

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“I gave cricket a go for a couple of years,” Whitelock recalled. “Aaron Smith and I went to the same high school so (we’ve) known each other since (we were) 13, and Aaron is a very good cricketer, he said ‘hey come play cricket’. I couldn’t bat, I couldn’t bowl but he loved me standing at point just (with my) big mits trying to catch everything.

“So I kind of gave that a go for a year but I really fell in love with basketball. This kind of sums up how terrible I was at the start: the first layup I ever tried to do, I bounced the ball, pretty much hit my feet or whatever, and I (tried to) roll the ball off the backboard but instead of it going into the hoop, it bounced off the backboard and pretty much loaded on halfway.

“So the coordination wasn’t the best thing and then to rub salt into the wound, for the next four years I got the Most Improved Player, so I must have been terrible at the start and the only reason that I didn’t get it in my fifth year is because my little brother started playing and he was a little bit like me, a bit gumpy, a bit uncoordinated, and he took that mantle.”

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Standing over two meters tall and weighing in at 117 kg, Whitelock’s frame is not dissimilar in size to NBA star LeBron James. The nickname of Whitelock’s favourite NBA player seems to fit the bill perfectly considering the skillset the lock offers in rugby; Tim Duncan AKA “The big fundamental” who was known for being as fundamentally sound of a basketball player as there ever was.

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“That was definitely the game that wasn’t the family game, but it was the game that Luke and I fell in love with and obviously with a bit of height, it definitely helps. But it’s what our mates were doing and that was the thing that kind of stopped me from getting in trouble at school because I was probably a little bit naughty in third or fourth form and it just allowed me to express myself and burn a bit of energy off.”

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