“To tell you the truth, if you asked me a couple of months ago what we were doing, we were probably gone,” Whitelock admitted to media at his Crusaders’ press conference.
“I thought we were just going to go to Japan and not come back to New Zealand. But full credit to New Zealand Rugby, they sat us down and we worked through some issues and we’re really happy with where we’re at now.”
Whilst the new deal allows Whitelock to be picked for the All Blacks while on sabbatical with Panasonic in the Japan Top League, the sticking point to the negotiations was an exit clause that enables Whitelock to step away from the game if he feels his time is up before 2023.
“So if it’s too hard on family, or my body isn’t holding up, or I’m not enjoying it anymore. That’s when we can end it there. That’s one of the key things that flipped it around from going,” Whitelock said.
He will attempt to help them make it three successive World Cup triumphs at this year’s tournament in Japan, before spending a brief stint in that country in 2020.
Whitelock will miss the Super Rugby season to play for Panasonic on a short-term contract, and return to New Zealand at the end of the Japanese Top League season that May.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, who will step down from his post after the World Cup and is reportedly set to take over Japan’s Toyota Verblitz, said: “Sammy is a very special player, an outstanding athlete, and has been a hugely respected leader in our group for some time now.
“Together with Brodie Retallick, he has been part of what we consider one of the world’s best locking combinations, but he is very much a world-class player in his own right. He’s a deep thinker on the game, cares passionately about the All Blacks and has done incredibly well in the handful of Tests which he has captained so far.
“Knowing that he has recommitted for four more years is huge for the All Blacks, the Crusaders and New Zealand Rugby. We’re all incredibly proud of what he has achieved so far in the jersey and look forward to the next four years.”
NZR CEO Steve Tew also hailed the retention of Whitelock as a major re-signing.
“This is a major re-signing for us and we’re absolutely delighted that Sam has chosen to sign a four-year deal. He’s a world-class player, an All Blacks centurion, the most capped All Blacks lock of all time and he carries immense mana,” he said.
Whitelock said: “I’m grateful to New Zealand Rugby, the Crusaders and Canterbury Rugby for their support of myself and my family in making this decision, and I’m really proud to commit to these teams for the next four years.
“Ultimately, this decision allows me to take some time with my family to experience a new rugby environment in Japan, before coming back refreshed and ready for the remainder of 2020 and beyond.
“I’m pleased there is clarity around my playing future, so I can focus on the remainder of this 2019 season with the Crusaders.”
Brodie Retallick sidelined for the Chiefs:
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