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FEATURE Why the All Blacks are serious about giving Sam Whitelock one last hurrah

Why the All Blacks are serious about giving Sam Whitelock one last hurrah
2 months ago

It looked like the script was written almost perfectly for Sam Whitelock last year. He ticked just about every box he wanted to when he won Super Rugby with the Crusaders, became the most capped All Black in history and played in a third World Cup final.

Granted, he didn’t walk away with a winner’s medal, but still, it looked like he was calling time on his test career with nothing left to prove and no sense at all of there being unfinished business as he headed off for Pau, where he would play two seasons in the French league with his younger brother Luke.

But there has been a potential dramatic twist to the Whitelock story, as, following a report in the NZ Herald, it has emerged that he could come home in July.

It turns out that Whitelock signed a one-year deal with Pau, with the option to stay for one more.

It is believed that his agent contacted New Zealand Rugby a few weeks ago to see if there was any interest in Whitelock returning to his homeland.

This was effectively just good due diligence – Whitelock understanding what his options are so he can weigh up whether to stay in France, come home, head somewhere else or even call it quits.

It is understood that new All Blacks coach Robertson chatted with him, prefaced everything with the usual caveats of not being able to guarantee him All Blacks selection, while carefully not putting any pressure on Whitelock to feel he was being pressured.

Sam Whitelock
Most Kiwi fans thought they’d seen the last of Sam Whitelock at the Rugby World Cup but could he have one last hurrah in black? (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Quite where Whitelock landed with all that isn’t yet known, but it is understood he received a favourable response when he asked whether there would be any appetite for him to return.

Robertson, who has a long and established relationship with Whitelock, doesn’t believe that the veteran is finished as a test player.

Whitelock will turn 36 later this year, but he was still playing at a world class level in October and Robertson can see his former Crusaders captain eking out one more year, probably two.

The prospect of Whitelock resuming a test career at the age of 35 raises the question of whether this is inspiring, or a touch deluded.

It’s not without precedent – Brad Thorn returned to rugby after a three-year stint in the NRL, at the age of 33, won a World Cup when he was almost 37 and went on to still be playing at an elite level when he was 40.

Victor Matfield was another to show what was possible, when he returned to rugby in 2014 after retiring in 2011 aged 33.

His comeback saw him win a Springbok place at the age of 37 and play a critical role in their 2015 World Cup campaign.

But against these examples, is the sense that the speed and dynamism of the modern game has made lock a younger man’s position – with Ireland’s Joe McCarthy and England’s Ollie Chessum making big statements in the Six Nations.

In terms of what he could offer for a season in terms of maybe playing six or seven test matches if he’s top of his game, I think that’s really valuable. We shouldn’t forget how good he was at the Rugby World Cup.

Jeff Wilson, former All Black

Former All Black Jeff Wilson, discussing the prospect of Whitelock returning home on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown, said: “Rugby World Cup at 40? I think that’s a bit beyond my imagination.

“But in terms of what he could offer for a season in terms of maybe playing six or seven test matches if he’s top of his game, I think that’s really valuable.

“We shouldn’t forget how good he was at the Rugby World Cup.”

The All Blacks coaching group are likely taking a broader view of what value Whitelock brings, and the attraction is not just the qualities he offers as a player, it’s his knowledge, experience and grizzled approach to those around him.

Brodie Retallick, Dane Coles
With Dane Coles, Aaron Smith and Brodie Retallick retired, the All Blacks have been shorn of gnarled leaders (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

The All Blacks are short of tough, uncompromising, older leaders now that Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick have retired and it’s not clear what Sam Cane’s future looks like after suffering a back injury while playing in Japan.

International coaches love having older, experienced characters like Whitelock in the mix because they hold others to account and drive higher standards.

Whitelock brings an edge and a sense of authority, and he’s also someone with the standing and inclination to speak up and speak out, something All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan emotionally spoke about after the World Cup quarterfinal defeat of Ireland.

In that test, Whitelock came off the bench for the last half hour, won his lineout ball, hit rucks hard, carried, tackled and most critically, produced the match-winning turnover when Ireland mounted their last attack which took them through 37 phases.

It was an incredible piece of agility and timing by Whitelock – brilliantly executed to ensure he was technically perfect so there was no possibility of referee Wayne Barnes penalising him.

“He’s just such a calming influence,” Ryan said.

New Zealand has a talented pool of locks – Tupou Vai’i, Josh Lord, Patrick Tuipulotu, Fabian Holland and Jamie Hannah – and there would be significant value in having Whitelock around to mentor them.

“He can square up the room and put the room on edge when he needs to. With that quarterfinal having him out there at the end and some of his messages he was working with skip and some of the other leaders, Ardie and Richie, it’s invaluable.

“He’s just honest. He doesn’t avoid things. Sometimes his timings aren’t that good. Him and I have had some great robust conversations, but he makes me a better coach. He makes sure I’m on and I challenge him to be better even though he’s played 151 rests.”

There’s also Whitelock’s specific positional knowledge and ability to mentor a young cohort of emerging locks.

New Zealand has a talented pool of locks – Tupou Vai’i, Josh Lord, Patrick Tuipulotu, Fabian Holland and Jamie Hannah – and there would be significant value in having Whitelock around to mentor them.

There have already been mixed views about whether bringing Whitelock home would be an admission of a lack of faith in the current crop of emerging locks, or a clever and measured move by Robertson.

Scott Robertson Sam Whitelock
Scott Robertson knows Sam Whitelock’s mindset as well as anyone as he ponders returning to the Test stage (Photo Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The majority view seems to be that it would be undeniably smart to have Whitelock play a role in shaping the future of several young players.

There’s no doubt that Lord and Holland look particularly capable of developing into test calibre players – a process that may be fast-tracked by being in an All Blacks squad with Whitelock.

Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan – who has Lord, Vai’i and the equally promising Naitoa Ah Kuoi in his squad – was asked while on the same Breakdown show, to give his thoughts on a possible Whitelock comeback.

He suggested, that while Whitelock is undoubtedly a legend of the game, that there is “outstanding talent” coming through, and: “The question really is do you chuck them in the hot seat and they learn from being out there in the middle or can that learning be accelerated by having somebody of his standard walking alongside them?”

The only other questions hanging over this are the ones regarding logistics – as in how would Whitelock be able to reintegrate into the game in New Zealand?

He would firstly have to sign a contract with a Super Rugby club for 2025, something which is unlikely to be too hard giving the current woes of his old, and only club, the Crusaders.

Under the current rules Whitelock wouldn’t be eligible until he had played in a domestic competition, but exemptions have been granted in the past to bypass that law. Presumably having 153 test caps and two World Cup winners’ medals, the NZR board wouldn’t need a huge amount of persuading.

They are yet to win a game in 2024 and would unquestionably find a contract for Whitelock if he wanted one.

“Sam left an enduring legacy here at the Crusaders and we can see that in the quality of the locks we have, now under the tutelage of Scott Barrett,” said CEO Colin Mainsbridge when he was asked to comment on the Herald’s story the day it was published.

“Once a Crusader always a Crusader, but as far as we know he’s on a two-year deal with Pau.”

And the other logistical mater to clean up would be Robertson gaining an exemption to pick Whitelock immediately.

Under the current rules Whitelock wouldn’t be eligible until he had played in a domestic competition, but exemptions have been granted in the past to by-pass that law and presumably having 153 test caps and two World Cup winners’ medals, the NZR board wouldn’t need a huge amount of persuading.

A story that almost had a perfect ending last year, may now have an intriguing last and unexpected chapter.

Comments

10 Comments
D
David 78 days ago

The current AB coaching team is basically the Crusaders so it smacks of wanting their familiar leaders around. This is not a good look for the future of the ABs or the younger players in Super working their way up the player ladder. Razor is touted as innovative, forward looking but his early moves look like insecurity and insular, provincial thinking. He is the AB's coach not the Golden Oldies.

p
paul 78 days ago

Simple reason for wanting him back. Robertson wants him as captain.
Otherwise he wouldn’t be bothering chasing him. Not enough reason to come back just to mentor.

S
Shaylen 78 days ago

If he wants to come back then he should. He will be a major asset to the younger locks and could easily be played as an impact player off the bench coming on in the last 30. He is fit, strong and capable and has all the experience to make up for any loss in physical prowess. He could also be brought back with a view to coaching within the structures one day. Duane Vermeulen played until he was 37 or 38. He is now a roaming coach within the South African coaching structures. He was valuable in the last world cup and has been a major influence on Jasper Wiese and other young players which has helped and accelerated their development and growth. Whitelock could do the exact same thing for NZ

M
Mzilikazi 78 days ago

I think Sam Whitelock should not touch a return with a bargepole. He went out on a high, playing in the RWC Final. He would be coming back into a team that will be weaker than last years, and might even be struggling to win games, especially against the Boks. Stay in France, enjoy another year with Pau, playing alongside his brother.

M
MattJH 78 days ago

It’s the massive value he brings with regard team culture/values, preparation, etc.
Can’t buy that.
I’m hoping to see the young locks get their chance in the big games though.

G
Greg 78 days ago

All good, Gregor, except that you neglected to mention Sam Darry amongst that talented pool of locks. In fact, given Hannah’s inexperience and the fact that Holland won’t be eligible until next year, Lord and Darry might be the frontrunners this year, to join Barrett, Tuipoluto, Va’ii and possibly Whitelock. In fact there might be room for all of them if Barrett played 6 (like Ollie Chessum).

m
monty 78 days ago

His value is stabilizing the ship 20 - 40 minutes out from the final whistle plus his valuable experience to the underlings coming through.

S
Scott 78 days ago

When Beauden Barrett signed his contract before the 2023 RWC to play in Japan in 2024, it was NOT part of a sabbatical agreed to with NZRU prior to his signing, as was Ardie Savea and Sam Cane. Barrett changed his mind after the fact and negotiated his return to NZ Rugby and he was given permission to be eligible for All Black selection straight away once he signed a new contract to return to the Blues in 2025.

Therefore, why would anyone argue against Whitelock returning to the All Blacks straight away after his season is France is finished if he signs a new contract with NZRU which includes a Super Rugby contract in 2025?

If Barrett can, Whitelock should be allowed too.

S
Scott 78 days ago

The All Blacks will select 5 locks this season.

Scott Robertson will most likely want to select 2 veteran locks who can start right away in 2024 and 3 young promising locks who he would like to be pushing hard for selection in the starting XV in two years time- 2026.

Scott Barrett is a world class lock. Who would you rather start beside him this season against England, South Africa, Ireland, and France- Sam Whitelock or Patrick Tuipulotu?

I would choose Whitelock over Tuipulotu all day, every day.

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