New Zealand Rugby have revealed All Blacks star Sam Whitelock could make a surprise return to the Crusaders should any form of Super Rugby take place this year.

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A strong candidate to become Kieran Read’s successor as All Blacks captain, Whitelock had been playing for the Panasonic Wild Knights on a one-season sabbatical in the Top League in Japan as part of his new four-year contract with NZR.

His campaign with Robbie Deans’ side was cut short, though, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and a leading NZR official confirmed earlier this week that the 117-test veteran will be available to return to Super Rugby in a restructured format.

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“It’s absolutely possible,” NZR head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum told Stuff on Thursday.

“At the moment the current SANZAAR rules would prevent Sam from being involved in the finals series, depending on when he was cleared back into New Zealand.

“But clearly, with a whole lot of this stuff a good hard look is going to be taken at the rules that we have.

“There will be all sorts of irregularities around player movement caused by this crisis and the current lockdown.”

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If Whitelock takes to the field in Crusaders colours this year, it would almost certainly only come in a New Zealand-only format under government guidelines which would deem play safe enough to take place in the coming months.

Lendrum also indicated to Stuff that the 31-year-old could also make a rare appearance in New Zealand’s provincial competition with no international duties with the All Blacks on the horizon.

“It’s certainly possible that he could play for Canterbury if the All Blacks are available through to Mitre 10 Cup,” Lendrum said.

“Again that depends on the state of the shutdown and when we can get back to play domestically versus internationally.”

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Despite also being based in Japan for the Top League season, a return to New Zealand domestic rugby isn’t imminent for Whitelock’s long-time second row partner Brodie Retallick.

“Brodie Retallick’s contract to Kobe until the end of the ’20-21 season,” he said.

“We haven’t had any specific conversations with Brodie that would indicate that his plans have changed as result of this.

“Our current expectation is that we don’t have him playing here in 2020.”

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