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'Hopefully we can get back': Sam Whitelock keen on Super Rugby return to South Africa

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

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Crusaders star Sam Whitelock says he is eager to return to South Africa in a Super Rugby capacity, two years after the departure of the country’s teams from the competition.

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The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers all left Super Rugby following the global outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, paving the way for a move north to join Europe’s United Rugby Championship, previously known as the Pro14.

That move brought an end to a 25-year Super Rugby alliance between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, with the former two countries continuing the competition with a Pacific-centric focus with the inclusions of Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua.

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In spite of the South African teams’ decision to align themselves with clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy, the Springboks remain in the Rugby Championship.

The South African Rugby Union confirmed earlier this year that the Springboks will stay in SANZAAR’s annual international tournament – which also features the All Blacks, Wallabies and Los Pumas – until 2025.

After four years away from South Africa, the All Blacks will return to the Republic for two tests in this year’s edition of the competition, their first visit to the country since 2018.

Whitelock will likely join his countrymen in travelling to South Africa, a prospect he told media earlier this week that he was relishing.

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However, the All Blacks veteran, who will play for the Crusaders against the Chiefs on Saturday, also indicated that he hoped to return to South Africa with the Christchurch-based franchise at some point in the future.

“South Africa, they play a certain style,” Whitelock said when asked about how he has found the rebranded Super Rugby Pacific competition without the South African franchises.

“They’ve got big, strong guys, that’s their strength, that’s the way they like to play. It is something that I do personally enjoy having in the Super Rugby environment because they’re hard to play against.

“Going over there travelling, it’s an awesome place to travel to, but, also, it’s very hard to play there.

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“It’s something that I’ve been lucky enough to have in my career so far, and hopefully we can get back at some stage, whether that carries on as Rugby Championship or Super Rugby.”

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Between his Super Rugby debut in 2010 and South Africa’s exit from the competition, Whitelock toured the country every year with the Crusaders, who normally played two South African teams per trip to the Republic.

The 33-year-old lock also captained the Crusaders to their first title in nine years when they beat the Lions in Johannesburg in the 2017 Super Rugby final, the only to be won by a foreign team on South African soil.

In spite of those fond memories of his time in Africa, Whitelock maintained that Super Rugby Pacific still has a strong competitive edge, even without a South African presence in the league.

“I think it’s quite early in the season at the moment, but there is some close games that have gone on, and I think it just shows how tight this competition is,” he said.

“We haven’t had any cross-over games yet, so while we’re still obviously in New Zealand, it’s going to be interesting when we do get those cross-over games just to see where everyone’s at.”

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