With the announcement of Sam Cane as the next All Black captain, the sun is slowly setting on Sam Whitelock’s international career.
Many tipped Whitelock to succeed Read, and with 117 tests under his belt, it was a short-odds pick.
But, by going with the younger Sam Cane, the All Blacks have opted for a long-term option. Whitelock will be 34 years old in 2023, the year France hosts the next World Cup.
He has been mostly ‘untouchable’ during Hansen’s reign as coach, part of the leadership group, and a vice-captain.
However, Whitelock’s on-field form at the highest level in the last two seasons hasn’t been at the same level shown earlier in his career.
Whilst this isn’t a death knell, reputation can only warrant selection for so long.
In the 2018 loss to Ireland in Dublin, Whitelock’s energy, among a few others in black, was noticeably absent as he operated on tired legs to push through the final intense game of the season. Another forward who looked out of gas that night, Karl Tu’inukuafe, hasn’t played since the final test of that season.
The 2019 semi-final loss to England highlighted the shortcomings of the elder All Black statesmen.
The pack were dominated up front, losing lineout ball, maul turnovers, and run ragged by a more youthful English cohort.
Scott Barrett became the scapegoat of a ‘stacked’ lineout that failed to generate any returns and was subbed at halftime.
The tape, though, shows many guilty culprits at lineout time. Whitelock was one of them, failing to read and react quickly enough to perform lifts to compete with England’s jumpers.
While England ran many slips and ‘jump fakes’ often bluffing twice before hitting the third option, there were other simpler lineout calls that just simply beat the All Blacks to the punch.
Whitelock’s own first two targets on the All Blacks’ own ball resulted in turnovers, a sacked maul and a stolen throw to Itoje.
There were communication issues between all key men in the All Black lineout as they struggled to figure out what England were throwing at them. It was a forgettable performance that everyone will be keen to put behind them.
On the face of it, Scott Barrett’s inclusion in the starting line-up forced Sam Cane to the bench. But in reality, Barrett is an athletic lock first and a loose forward second.
The trade-off was really Whitelock for Cane, as Barrett could have filled a starting lock role to give the All Blacks more athleticism around the park.
In the back row, both Ardie Savea and Cane could have played near 80 minutes with Matt Todd available as a replacement.
Hansen didn’t portion blame on Barrett in the post-match press conference but didn’t completely absolve him either.
“Scott came out and played as well as he could. Did we want to win some more lineout ball? Yes, we did. But we didn’t. It takes more than one person to do that,” he said.
It was Barrett that chased down wing Jonny May, one of the fastest players in the England team who runs 100m at 10.7s, to save seven points.
It was Barrett that sparked a Brodie Retallick line break with a pick-and-go and offload around the ruck deep inside the All Blacks’ own territory.
Barrett was a net-positive over 40 minutes while Whitelock was a net-negative over 80, including giving away key penalties for hitting Owen Farrell with a Bruce Lee facepalm and shouldering Ben Youngs off the ball.
Execution errors are acceptable, but questionable effort should be a potential red flag that one’s desire is coming to an end.
Both Whitelock and Sonny Bill Williams are responsible for this line break last year against the Wallabies just seven minutes into the second half at Eden Park.
One player at least puts his body on the line to make a diving tackle attempt while the other stands by and fails to give anything other than a flailing hand, even with the ball-carrier running in his direction.
They are different athletes, but there should be no difference between their effort output.
This is just one isolated incident, but nonetheless is one that worries for a player potentially meant to carry on in test rugby until 2023.
A player of Whitelock’s calibre should never be beaten like that without at least making an attempt, less than 10 minutes after a half-time break.
It is the play of someone injured, which could have been the case, or someone not at the level required anymore.
Just remember, Rieko Ioane’s and Ben Smith’s starting jobs were quickly axed after one off-night in Perth. It doesn’t take a lot to force change within the All Black camp.
Romanticism and being sentimental aren’t what builds long-term greatness in professional sports teams. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were able to get a fairytale finish but that won’t happen every time.
At the age of 30, Whitelock’s contract with New Zealand Rugby was extended on a four-year twilight deal with very favourable terms, which he himself admitted if he didn’t receive he was ready to walk away from test rugby and play in Japan.
“I thought we were just going to go to Japan and not come back to New Zealand,” he said.
It sounds like he was already mentally prepared to leave it all behind. NZR touted it as a ‘major coup’ while Whitelock talked admirably about the exit clause.
“That’s [exit clause] one of the key things that flipped it around from going,” he explained.
Moving on from the international game is already on his mind.
There is nothing left for Whitelock to achieve or prove, he is a test centurion, two-time World Cup winner and three-time Super Rugby champion, with numerous Bledisloe Cups and Rugby Championships.
He will go down as one of the all-time great locks, and few that can match his achievements.
But once he is back in the All Black environment, he must be selected on form or future potential, not past achievements, like any other player. He is not in the development stage so that means it must only be on form.
He doesn’t generate gain line carries or offloads like Retallick, or make deft passes at the line like Barrett.
On tired limbs, he doesn’t eat space off the line and crush ball-carriers with dominant defence anymore.
He tackles serviceably, yes, but defence is more than tackle completion. His spacial coverage is less than that of Barrett’s and the Springboks and England have advanced past the All Blacks in terms of physicality.
He can still hit rucks using his big body to clean and run a lineout, but if other options offer more and are here for the long-term, that is perhaps where Foster should go.
If Whitelock’s leadership and intangible presence are invaluable, a mentoring role within the squad would suit, but a starting role cannot be offered without the form to back it up.
Maybe a light season in the Top League will see Whitelock get a second wind in his career, that cannot be ruled out.
There are younger locks like Quinten Strange and Pari Pari Parkinson who will be pushing for test caps soon. Scott Barrett and Brodie Retallick are in their prime now.
Do the All Blacks sacrifice the future to squeeze more out of Whitelock? The odds are just simply against him reaching the next World Cup.
If he desires to still play internationally this year and beyond, that is great, but the coaches should not give him a free ride to the detriment of the team.
The All Blacks have lived on the mantra that no one is bigger than the team for a long time, and many talented players have been moved on a year too soon rather than a year too late.
What happens with Sam Whitelock will test whether that still holds.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now