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'Before Itoje, before Retallick, always give it to Sam Whitelock': All Blacks centurion turns back the clock with superlative sudden death showcase

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images)

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Head back two years and it almost looked like Samuel Whitelock’s career with the All Blacks might have been coming to an end.

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The then 30-year-old looked a shadow of his former self at the 2019 Rugby World Cup and was thoroughly outplayed by the likes of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes in New Zealand’s semi-final loss to England.

An extended break following that competition, however, saw Whitelock rest up his body and return to NZ in time for the Crusaders’ successful run to the Super Rugby Aotearoa title in 2020.

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The Aotearoa Rugby Pod discuss the surprise signing by the Crusaders of powerhouse loose forward Pablo Matera and what it means for their already stacked depth in the position in 2022.

Whitelock was supposed to play out the season in Japan’s Top League before returning for the international calendar but the Japanese competition was called off early in the piece due to the impacts of the global pandemic.

The former Crusaders captain looked back to best when he finally returned for his side in their late June clash with the Hurricanes and had seemingly bucked the stagnation of 2019.

He was also excellent for the All Blacks in their matches against the Wallabies and Pumas in last year’s compacted international season – but the 32-year-old has seemingly taken things to a new level this year and has been the best lock in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition and will be in the pole position to take over from Sam Cane as captain of the national side thanks to the Chief’s long-term injury.

In last night’s grand final, Whitelock was on a one-man mission to prevent his opposition from getting any front-foot ball and was an absolute menace in the lineouts.

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While the Chiefs have never had the most reliable of set-pieces, their lineout has been relatively safe in 2021 with most issues stemming from the ball not being delivered straight.

Whitelock tormented Samisoni Taukei’aho and Bradley Slater, however, snaffling three clean steals off the young hookers – the most by any player in any game over the past two seasons.

The commentators were quick to highlight that the Chiefs had opted for a shorter lineout for the match, shifting regular blindside flanker Mitch Brown into the second row instead of reinstating Naitoa Ah Kuoi, who was on the comeback from concussion. Whitelock would been just as impactful against taller timber because it wasn’t his height that was giving him an advantage, it was his aerial prowess.

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Whitelock leads the standings in lineout steals over the past two campaigns with seven to his name and has taken 20 more lineouts overall than the next best receiver, Highlanders flanker Shannon Frizell.

Despite having up-and-coming NZ prospects Mitch Dunshea and Quinten Strange in their stables, the Crusaders have turned to Whitelock and Scott Barrett time and time again this year – and it’s easy to see why.

The Crusaders ultimately emerged 24-13 victors in last night’s grand final and while Richie Mo’unga will receive many of the plaudits thanks to his second-half showcase on attack, it was the work of Whitelock that ultimately gave the Crusaders the platform they needed to secure their fifth title in as many seasons.

Fans on social media were quick to share their love for the second-rower, however, with Argentinian ESPN journalist Emiliano Soria suggesting that Whitelock was the premier lock in world rugby.

While New Zealand is blessed with excellent locking stocks at present, including Barrett, Dunshea, Strange, Patrick Tuipulotu and Tupou Vaa’i, Whitelock will be a guaranteed pick for Ian Foster in the second row – and will likely be given the captain’s armband to boot.

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'Before Itoje, before Retallick, always give it to Sam Whitelock': All Blacks centurion turns back the clock with superlative sudden death showcase

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