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Play it again, Sam By Patrick McKendry

Sam Whitelock, according to Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, is not only “turning back the clock” in terms of his form and fitness, he’s also no longer “grumpy” at training or agitating to be selected as captain.

Robertson may have had a smile on his face when he said it, but he was serious about how well his 32-year-old lock is playing and anyone who kept even one eye on the Crusaders’ recent 29-6 victory over the Blues in Christchurch which guaranteed them a Super Rugby Aotearoa home final on May 8 will probably agree with him. 

Robertson made the comments immediately after the match on the Sky Sports broadcast and, while he occasionally uses hyperbole to press home a point, it’s difficult to argue with him here.

Whitelock doesn’t look like he has 122 tests on the clock. He doesn’t look like he’s mixed it with some of the most ruthless international packs in the world since 2010 and in Super Rugby with the Crusaders that same year.

A 21-year-old Sam Whitelock made his debut for the All Blacks alongside the well-travelled Brad Thorn, his mentor at both Canterbury and the Crusaders. (Photo by Photosport)

He’s a lot closer to the end of his career than the start of it – the 2023 World Cup in France is likely to be his swansong – but he’s playing with accuracy and energy. Crucially, despite the knocks he’s received to the various parts of his body in matches and on the training pitch over more than a decade, he’s playing with enthusiasm. He hasn’t lost a smidgen of the hunger he’s had during what is already a glittering career. As the man known as Razor says, Whitelock is playing some of the best footy of his life.

And, as Crusaders forwards coach Jason Ryan told The XV recently, that’s partly because Whitelock has to in order to justify selection. The riches the Crusaders have at lock are almost embarrassing when you consider his top-ranked partner in the second row is fellow All Black Scott Barrett, with Quinten Strange and Mitchell Dunshea pushing them along while warhorse Luke Romano, a vastly experienced former international, has played only one game for the Crusaders this season.

Whitelock’s so-called “grumpiness” during the week may be related to his ruthless insistence that standards be kept on and off the pitch. In this regard, he probably learned from the best: months before he was selected for his first test against Ireland in New Plymouth (he came off the bench and scored two tries in a 66-28 victory, a remarkable introduction to the top level), Brad Thorn told Whitelock he would play plenty of tests. Not even the remarkable Thorn, a well-known perfectionist, would have known how many.

You have different challenges where you walk into a club there and you don’t know who anyone is or where they sit, if they are a physio or player or doctor. Compared to here at the Crusaders where I’ve been for a while – I know where it all fits and who’s who.

Sam Whitelock on his time in Japan

And as far as no longer agitating for the captaincy goes, maybe his standards are finally being met. Or maybe it’s because of the likelihood that he is in line for a far more significant leadership job this year.

Sam Cane’s chest surgery means the All Blacks job is vacant until near the end of 2021 and Whitelock, who has led the All Blacks several times before, has by far the most impressive CV for the role. He was superb as Kieran Read’s replacement as captain at the Crusaders between 2017-19 – more recently Codie Taylor and Scott Barrett have led the Crusaders, with Barrett their current captain – and not only for his inspirational performances but his feel for the game. 

He quickly showed that he has excellent instincts in terms of his game awareness, and, while he was helped by a formidable forward pack that hasn’t lost any of its potency, if Whitelock pointed to the sideline rather than the posts his side generally came away with points. Simply put, given he and Cane were on Ian Foster’s original shortlist, it would be a huge surprise if he was overlooked again for the top job.

With Sam Cane unavailable for the start of the test season, Sam Whitelock appeals as the obvious choice to captain the All Blacks. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“You look at Sam Whitelock, who’s done it before and, for me personally, that’s the direction I’d go in, with Sam. He’s a guy who’s proven at that level,” Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall said in a recent Aotearoa Rugby Pod podcast.

“It wouldn’t be new to him, and he’s been successful when he’s done that and, again, he’s had that time with us, with the Crusaders, being able to captain us for three years and have success.

“I think for the fact that he’s had so much experience as well, it’ll just be an easy transition for him.”

I think the captaincy brings the best out of him, so what it would do for him and his game will be great.

James Parsons on Sam Whitelock as a potential All Blacks captain.

Former Blues skipper James Parsons agreed. “Sam Whitelock’s done the job before, he’s got the experience and it’s not going to be such a big adjustment to the group because you know he’s going to be selected, purely because of his form at the moment,” he said.

“I think he’s playing some of his best footy. His stint in Japan [helped] and he’s come back from that and he’s playing some seriously good code and almost lifting his standards to a higher level, which I think is exciting for him, but also for the All Blacks.

“I think the captaincy brings the best out of him, so what it would do for him and his game will be great.”

Parsons’ mention of Whitelock’s short time in Japan last year is significant. His sabbatical with Panasonic was cut short due to COVID, but his time away from New Zealand made a huge difference to his outlook and body. He looked weary at the 2019 World Cup. He appeared to need a break and while it was a working holiday, he returned to the Crusaders last year after six months away and played like a man rejuvenated.

Sam Whitelock spent an interrupted season playing for Panasonic in Japan – the scene of 2019’s Rugby World Cup semi-final loss to a fired-up England side. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

The switch to a new environment and a lighter workload not only freshened him up, it probably also made him appreciate what he had left behind in Christchurch.

“You have different challenges where you walk into a club there and you don’t know who anyone is or where they sit, if they are a physio or player or doctor,” Whitelock said of his time at Panasonic. “Compared to here at the Crusaders where I’ve been for a while – I know where it all fits and who’s who.”

All of which is good news for Robertson and Foster, both of whom have some significant fixtures ahead of them.

Robertson will be desperate to make it five titles in a row (and likely already have an eye on the Trans-Tasman competition that follows Super Rugby Aotearoa), with Foster having to negotiate his way through a test season yet to be confirmed but with huge importance for him personally given some less than convincing performances from the All Blacks last year, his first as head coach.

Whitelock’s form will be reassuring for both. He still has championships and tests to win. He’s as driven as ever.

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