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How Aaron Smith and Sam Whitelock's connection has come full circle

By Tom Vinicombe
Aaron Smith, Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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While Aaron Smith may have clocked up his 100th game for the All Blacks on Saturday evening, it was captain Sam Whitelock who led the side onto the park – with Smith following close behind.

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In some ways, that’s been the story of the two men’s careers.

While Whitelock has played all his professional rugby in the Canterbury region, the 32-year-old was born and raised in Manawatu. Aaron Smith may have also moved south, to represent the Highlanders, but he too was reared in the Manawatu and continues to represent the Turbos in provincial rugby.

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The first and final 20 minutes of the opening Bledisloe Cup test of 2021 weren’t pretty viewing for All Blacks fans.

If being born in the same area wasn’t curious enough, the only two current All Blacks centurions even attended the same school.

Following Saturday’s 33-25 victory over the Wallabies, Smith reflected on the journey the pair have undertaken – both together and apart – since first attending Feilding High School in the mid-2000s.

“We talk about it all the time, ending up in the same group class for our whole high school years,” said Smith. “It’s pretty surreal.

“I always knew Sam was going to make it, he was a schoolboy star and the man. I can’t believe I even said that but it’s true. But yeah it’s surreal. From little old Feilding.

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“I remember it was actually the open day, we were both year 8 and I yelled out, I was like ‘Are you going to come here bro?’, and he’s like ‘Yep!’, and I was like ‘Sweet, see you next year!’ And then we were in the same group class and played all our rugby together.”

Almost 20 years later, the pair are playing together for the All Blacks, with Whitelock first progressing into the side in 2010. It’s not the first time that the former classmates have represented New Zealand side by side, however.

“I made my first New Zealand team with him in Under 20s and really got a taste of it there and I’ve always loved watching Sam play, I was really proud of him when he made the All Blacks in 2010,” Smith said.

“I was really proud when he won the World Cup in 2011. The longer my career went, I was like, it’d be pretty cool to try reconnect.”

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Smith followed into the national set-up soon after, debuting against Ireland in 2012 in the same series that Julian Savea, Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano and Beauden Barrett also earned their first caps.

Smith and Whitelock were key players in the All Blacks’ 2015 World Cup triumph and now, they’re the two most experienced players in the squad.

“We’re the two old heads in the team – me, him and Colesy,” said Smith. “They call us koro [the Maori word for elder] or grumpy, all that stuff.”

Sam Whitelock was named captain of the All Blacks this season in the absence of the injured Sam Cane and Smith was handed the captaincy mantel for the first time in the second test of the July series when Whitelock was rested.

While the two have been teammates for the All Blacks, they’ve also gone hammer and tongs as rivals during Super Rugby – sometimes as opposing captains.

Smith revealed that he has often looked to Whitelock – the more experienced leader – to guide his own development and ahead of this year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, Whitelock even called Smith to provide some advice for the Highlanders’ clash with the Blues.

“Sam’s a real inspiration for me,” said Smith. “He’s a great leader.

“In the last couple of years, being a captain at the Highlanders, I’ve really leaned on Sam and even to show the class of the man, the week of the final vs the Blues, for their team to miss [out on the finals] and then him to ring me on the Sunday to give me tips shows the true worth of the guy and our friendship. He’s a great captain and someone I aspire to be like and just grateful for our friendship.”

Whitelock and Smith are both signed with New Zealand until 2023 and expected to play big roles at the next Rugby World Cup.

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How Aaron Smith and Sam Whitelock's connection has come full circle

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