Sam Whitelock reflects on brothers and Brad Thorn as keys to legendary longevity
Sam Whitelock’s name was already carved into rugby’s history books as one of the game’s most prolific winners, and now, he is set to be immortalised as the All Blacks‘ most-capped player of all time.
In 2008, Whitelock won the Junior World Championship with the Baby Blacks and New Zealand’s provincial rugby tournament, the NPC, with Canterbury. In 2011 and 2015, he won back-to-back Rugby World Cups and currently enjoys a six-year reign as Super Rugby champions with the Crusaders.
A winner of all winners, Whitelock’s legacy is second to none.
Named to take the field in the No 19 jersey against Italy, The 34-year-old will surpass Richie McCaw’s record of 148 games for his nation with at least one match to spare as he rounds out a legendary career at this Rugby World Cup.
The man whose record Whitelock inherits had a thoughtful message for his old friend ahead of the milestone match.
“I always said, it’s not the number of caps you play, it’s how you play in each of those caps and there’s no doubt, still now, you’re performing as one of the top players in the world,” Richie McCaw said in a video message for Whitelock.
“I take my hat off to you, mate. I know there’s a few more games remaining which you’ll be looking forward to nailing, I wish you all the best and it’s been a pleasure to watch you come out in 2010, and to where you are now, even if it does mean taking a record I cherished, I couldn’t think of it going to a better guy.”
While the All Blacks currently face a new challenge in avoiding a pool stage exit, Whitelock himself found time to reflect with old teammate Andy Ellis.
Casting his mind back to a brisk winter evening in 2010, Whitelock recalled the story of his first All Blacks game.
“I probably had the best first game ever,” he told The Front Row Daily Show. “I came on at lock, took Brad Thorn off, so it was Anthony Boric and I.
“It was a scrum, they went early so got free-kicked, Piri (Weepu) quick-tapped, I think the next phase, Anthony Boric’s gone through, given it back to Piri, I’ve caught the ball, fallen over the line and scored.
“So, the first thing I’ve done as an All Black is caught the ball, fallen over the line and scored a try.
“I’m obviously on cloud nine, thinking ‘this is awesome’. As the game unfolded I scored another try.
“I remember saying to the media afterwards, ‘scoring two on debut, I’d be happy if I never scored again’ which was the worst thing I could’ve said because I think I’ve scored about three since then.
“I started out with a really good strike rate but it’s dried up a bit since then.”
That heroic start to a heroic 13-year international career does indeed account for a third of Whitelock’s international Test points. No doubt fans will be hoping to see the second rower cross the line once more to celebrate his milestone in Lyon.
So, what is the secret to Whitelock’s longevity? Well, the veteran pointed to those nearest and dearest to him as key factors in his success.
“I reckon the thing that definitely helped me was my upbringing; having three brothers, it was like being at rugby training and all those things. We were always really, really competitive.
“I was set up really well early in my career, I spent a lot of time with Brad Thorn as the senior All Black lock, I played with him at the Crusaders for a couple of years. He did it in his own way, but he really set me up to be successful.
“Without forcing it on me, he took me aside and explained what he’d done, how he’d been successful, and a couple of other tricks that he’d learnt around looking after your body and stretching, being professional.
“A lot of those lessons I’m trying to pass on to the younger guys now because there’s a whole group of guys that did set me up early, whether it was provincial rugby or super rugby or international and it’s definitely helped me to be here, still now.”
Having never missed an All Blacks team naming since his debut, Whitelock has had a mortgage on the black No 5 jersey for more than a decade. His departure following the World Cup, along with storied teammate Brodie Retallick, makes for a generational shift in New Zealand’s locking hierarchy.
Current All Blacks Scott Barrett and Tupou Vaa’i are first in line to inherit Whitelock and Retallick’s throne. Beyond that, incoming All Blacks coach Scott Robertson is tasked with finding the next generation of talent to fill the almighty black boots the two leave behind.
While he reminisces with a smile, Whitelock has tapped into the experience of fellow legends to better understand how retiring from the All Blacks will feel.
“I remember talking to Conrad Smith, he said ‘I was always really bad at looking forward to the next one, I never really stopped and enjoyed the moment’. And I think that’s rugby players in general, we’re always on the next week, or you’re in a tournament or a competition, and to actually stop and take a moment and really look at it, I think that really happens when you do finish.
“When you’re sitting at home or talking about an old story, I think that’s when it really hits home, how awesome some of the things that we have accomplished as a team and then as well, as individuals.”