3 May 2019

Opinion: The risk with Sam Whitelock

4:40 pm on 3 May 2019

Opinion - Never mind what the next All Blacks coach fancies.

Sam Whitelock.

Can Sam Whitelock's body handle another four years playing for the All Blacks? Photo: PHOTOSPORT

No, whoever the new man turns out to be, it appears he'll have Sam Whitelock as his skipper. Whether he wants him or not.

Whitelock is a tremendous player. The kind of teak-tough grinder who gives you 9/10 every week and ensures the Crusaders and All Blacks rarely end up on the wrong side of the ledger.

But he's 30, a veteran of 108 tests and now on the New Zealand Rugby books for a further four years. Should he see out his contract, and remain the man at the on-field helm, Whitelock will attend a fourth Rugby World Cup.

In his position, and given the way he plays, that's a massive ask. Bodies are only designed to take so much punishment and no matter what the player's levels of desire and how mentally tough they are, at some point they become physically incapable performing to that previous standard.

NZ Rugby's way around that is what we might as well call 'the Japan clause'. A cushy, well-paid number at a company team, where elite players such as Whitelock can recuperate and still remain eligible for All Blacks selection.

Sabbaticals are nothing new. Stars of the previous generation such as Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter took them, but were still required to then show their face at Super Rugby or provincial level in order to get picked for New Zealand.

The change started with Matt Todd, who was selected from Japanese rugby for last year's end-of-season tour. Now Whitelock appears as if he'll be afforded that luxury, with potentially Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett to follow.

Matt Todd playing for All Blacks in June 2018

Matt Todd was allowed to play for the All Blacks in 2018 despite signing a one-season deal to play in Japan. Photo: © Copyright Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz Photosport Ltd 2018

That pair have less miles on the clock than Whitelock and have important parts to play in all, or at least some, of the next world cup cycle. Both are tired, and apparently eager for a couple of perks, so a stint in Japan allows NZR to participate in the boosting of their bank balance without actually having to pay.

Barrett's Hurricanes franchise, for instance, have signed a three-year partnership with Japan Top-League side the Ricoh Black Rams so it would not be a shock to see him end up on a paid holiday there.

Where things get a little murky is the All Blacks' eligibility part. Picking players from offshore creates a potentially dangerous precedent.

NZ Rugby will argue this is merely a reward for those deemed indispensable and not the start of a trend that would see dozens of players depart for richer club contracts elsewhere.

Whether we like or not, there are different rules for the elite in most walks of life. This is just another example of it at work in rugby.

But, just putting a fans' hat on for a minute, people would be entitled to give Super Rugby a pretty wide berth in years to come. All Blacks rest weeks and restrictions on playing minutes are bad enough, without blokes being able to give the whole competition a swerve and still make the national side.

Beauden Barrett

It's been speculated in the media that Beauden Barrett could follow Whitelock on an overseas sabbatical. Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2018 © Offside Sports Photography 2018

With the number of New Zealand derbies being halved from next year, Mediocre Rugby might become a better name for the competition.

As for Whitelock, there's no doubt he'll go down as an all-time All Blacks great. He's not the skilful all round footballer that Retallick is, but Whitelock remains the kind of mentally and physically hard player you can build a team around.

If he is to succeed Kieran Read as All Blacks captain then he'll continue the run of Canterbury and Crusaders players at the helm that began with McCaw in 2006.

There's no doubt Whitelock is a good candidate, but four years is a long time and it might be nice to let the next head coach decide that for himself. Assuming, of course, that the continuity doesn't extend to the coaching staff too and that Ian Foster doesn't automatically take over from Steve Hansen.

But that's a different debate for another day.

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