Fulfilling a lifelong dream takes some getting used to. Just ask the seven new All Blacks settling into their first national camp.
Less than three weeks out from the opening Bledisloe Cup test in Wellington, the All Blacks held an open training session on day two of their camp in Whakat?ne on Tuesday where hundreds of locals flocked to jockey for optimal viewing positions.
For the influx of rookies it was an eye-opening experience, one where becoming an All Black started to sink in.
“It is pretty surreal,” Crusaders flanker Cullen Grace, one of the seven new caps in the 35-man squad, said. “It doesn’t seem that long ago I was a kid being a fan of the All Blacks. I know how they’ll be feeling seeing the All Blacks so it’s great we can come here and give them that experience. It’s awesome to see how many people have turned out.”
Grace earned his All Blacks selection, among seven loose forwards, on the back of several standout displays for the Crusaders. His abrasive defence and relentless work-rate were features of his game, before thumb surgery in late June took him out of contention for the latter stages of the Super Rugby season and the North-South match.
Hailing from Timaru, the 20-year-old’s rapid elevation to the All Blacks puts him on the sporting podium alongside fellow South Canterbury icon, world shot put champion Tom Walsh.
“I wouldn’t say a street parade but there’s definitely a lot of support and that’s something I’m really grateful for. I’m really proud to be representing Timaru because it’s where I’m from.”
After a series of firsts, which includes travelling to Whakat?ne, his maiden marae visit on Monday and meeting new esteemed team-mates, Grace admits attempting to immerse himself in the All Blacks has been somewhat overwhelming but he is confident of stepping up to the test arena when his time comes.
“It was a dream of mine to be here so it’s been unreal. Being around such experience and knowledge is awesome. I’m just trying to pick everyone’s brains and learn as much as I can.
“You can’t come in and try and be someone else – you’ve been picked for a reason so bringing what you have to the table is key.
“Coming into a new environment you always want to prove yourself. I’m trying not to look too far ahead in terms of the test matches and just concentrate and soak up everything and if the opportunity does come I’m ready.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, 117-test veteran Sam Whitelock is relishing the chance to reconnect with team-mates old and new while plotting out the test season that begins on October 11 against the Wallabies.
The 31-year-old will shoulder a heavy responsibility this season while also helping groom rookie locks Quinten Strange and Tupou Vaa’i.
“I think back to when I was first asked to come in and everyone said just worry about yourself,” Whitelock said. “That’s the best advice I got given and it’s the same advice I’d give to any of the seven new players – be yourself, play the way you’ve always played and don’t try do something that’s new.
“It’s cool seeing the excitement on their faces. Will Jordan set his alarm a couple of times this morning so he didn’t sleep through which is what everyone does the first day, first week.
“They’re going to develop and grow and become more comfortable in this environment without relaxing on their skills. They’re prepared to work hard and they’re going to get better all the time.
“It’s awesome to look around the room and see these are the guys chosen to represent our country.”
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