'Before Itoje, before Retallick, always give it to Sam Whitelock': All Blacks centurion turns back the clock with superlative sudden death showcase
Head back two years and it almost looked like Samuel Whitelock’s career with the All Blacks might have been coming to an end.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"If you need someone to create a hole in the opposition midfield, you give the ball to Leicester Fainga’anuku. If you’re looking for someone to glide through one, then David Havili is your man."#SuperRugbyAotearoa #CRUvCHI #AllBlacks
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) May 8, 2021
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.
En cualquier pack del mundo, en cualquier lugar, antes que Itoje, antes que Retallick, siempre damelo a Sam Whitelock. Siempre. Jugadorazo con todas las letras. #SuperRugbyAotearoa
— Emiliano Soria (@EmilianoSoria9) May 8, 2021
One bloke not getting due kudos is Sam Whitelock. He has dominated at lineout, carried very well and in general play has not been surpassed.
— Merv Robertson (@MervRobertson) May 8, 2021
Whitelock is on job today…pinching all Chiefs lineouts #CRUvCHI
— Frank Degzi Kidega (@TheRealDegzi) May 8, 2021
Man our lineouts are under pressure. Whitelock and Barrett are a problem out there. Let's take the 3 where we can boys. #CRUvCHI
— Such Is Life…. (@EnslinMavunga) May 8, 2021
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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