By Patrick McKendry, NZ Herald

At 26 years old and with 36 test caps, new Crusaders captain Scott Barrett is about to take his game to the next level this season and beyond.

Well, he will if the man he is replacing – Sam Whitelock – is any guide. Whitelock’s leadership will be missed at the Crusaders during his season in Japan – not to mention his unique skills and grunt – but coach Scott Robertson has shown time and again over the past three years that he is capable of bringing the best out of his players and the captaincy should serve to help this with Barrett.

Whitelock will return to New Zealand for the July test series against Wales and Scotland and is in the running along with Chiefs loose forward Sam Cane to be the next All Blacks skipper. If he gets the job Barrett may well keep the captaincy of the Crusaders in order to lighten the load a little as happened with Richie McCaw and Kieran Read, both of whom relinquished the Crusaders captaincy when given what is seen as one of the most important jobs in the country.

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Robertson appointed Whitelock as his captain when he took over in 2017 and the big lock, already a consistent performer for the red and blacks, thrived. He has always been known to have an excellent rugby brain but his natural ability to know when an opposing team was vulnerable and when to make a slightly more defensive decision probably surprised even his closest advisors.

Whitelock’s excellent decision-making, along with that of his significant helpers Read, Ryan Crotty and Matt Todd, all of whom have now departed, was a common thread running through the team’s incredible run of success over the past three years.

Barrett’s added responsibility should help an already consistent and highly-motivated individual raise his game in similar fashion, and, with Brodie Retallick away on sabbatical for the rest of the year, it could set him up for a standout year in the black jersey.

Barrett had a mixed year in 2019, with a finger injury keeping him out of the Super Rugby final and a red card against the Wallabies in Perth a big reason for one of the All Blacks’ worst ever Bledisloe Cup defeats.

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The gamble of playing him at blindside flanker against England in the World Cup semifinal backfired badly but all of those setbacks are likely to sharpen his focus as he helps his team in their attempt to win a remarkable four titles in a row.

Their mission starts today with a match in Nelson against the Waratahs.

Robertson said this week that most of his departed players had kept in touch with the team, including Whitelock, who was eager to be kept up to speed.

“They send messages and make sure everyone’s okay,” Robertson said. “Sam’s a good man, I wouldn’t call him a control freak but he likes to know what’s going on. Scooter has been outstanding – he’s slipped straight into the role.

“He’s a quiet leader, he’ll chip in where he needs to. We have a lot of voices. We have two vice-captains in David Havili and Codie Taylor who will be exceptional for him, they’ll give him a good balance. His leading will be in his performances on the field.”

Crusaders team to play the Waratahs at Nelson’s Trafalgar Park on Saturday, kick-off 7.05pm is: 15. David Havili, 14. Will Jordan, 13. Braydon Ennor, 12. Jack Goodhue, 11. Leicester Faingaanuku, 10. Richie Mo’unga, 9. Mitchell Drummond, 8. Whetukamokamo Douglas, 7. Tom Christie, 6. Tom Sanders, 5. Mitchell Dunshea, 4. Scott Barrett (c), 3. Oliver Jager, 2. Andrew Makalio, 1. George Bower.

Reserves: 16. Codie Taylor 17. Isi Tu’ungafasi 18. Michael Alaalatoa 19. Luke Romano 20. Cullen Grace 21. Bryn Hall 22. Brett Cameron 23. Sevu Reece.

Waratahs: 15. Kurtley Beale, 14. Mark Nawaqanitawase, 13. Lalakai Foketi, 12. Karmichael Hunt, 11. Alex Newsome, 10. Will Harrison, 9. Jake Gordon, 8. Jed Holloway, 7. Michael Hooper, 6. Lachlan Swinton, 5. Rob Simmons (c), 4. Tom Staniforth, 3. Tetera Faulkner, 2. Robert Abel, 1. Tom Robertson.

Reserves: 16. Damien Fitzpatrick, 17. Angus Bell, 18. Chris Talakai, 19. Ryan Mccauley, 20. Jack Dempsey, 21. Carlo Tizzano, 22. Mitch Short, 23. Jack Maddocks.

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and was republished with permission.

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