3 Apr 2024

Sam Whitelock leaves a serious legacy behind

12:39 pm on 3 April 2024
Sam Whitelock of New Zealand during the warm up at the Rugby World Cup France 2023.

Sam Whitelock of New Zealand during the warm up at the Rugby World Cup France 2023. Photo: Photosport

Analysis: A lot of sports people like to say they don't read the news when they get asked about media noise. An awful lot of them are lying, often confirming they are only moments after making that statement. Sam Whitelock certainly wasn't, though.

Throughout his 153-test career with the All Blacks, Whitelock was good at holding his cards close to his chest. That's not unusual for them, stock standard answers are as much of the All Black brand as doing the haka, but it never came off as flippant or churlish with Whitelock. He very much gave off the impression that he simply wanted to play rugby, win, and go home.

That's from the perspective of the media and it would be foolish to simply leave it at that. The truth is Whitelock will go down as one of the most enduring athletes the country has ever produced, never mind just in his chosen sport.

His international career spanned an incredible 13 years, made even more impressive when you realise just how many scrums, rucks and tackles that meant he was involved with.

Sam Whitelock

Sam Whitelock speaks with media in Christchurch in 2022. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Whitelock was very much at the heart of what was one of the top three All Black sides of all time, with a serious case for being the best of the lot. Many had picked the side to be in a rebuild phase after the monumental Rugby World Cup victory in 2011, but the reality was they got a lot better almost instantaneously.

Across the 2013-14 seasons the All Blacks only lost one test match, going the entire '13 season undefeated. Whitelock started every single test, going the distance in 12 consecutive wins including the thrilling 24-22 win over Ireland in Dublin that cemented the team's perfect season.

He's the only man to play in three World Cup finals, and that could have been four had the All Blacks not faltered in 2019. It was in that fateful semi-final that you can pick out as probably the low point of Whitelock's test career, needlessly giving away a penalty by shoving Owen Farrell that swung the momentum back to England.

Sam Whitelock of the Crusaders and Crusaders coach Scott Robertson.
Blues v Crusaders Super Rugby Pacific Final rugby union match at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand on Saturday 18 June 2022.
© Copyright photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Sam Whitelock of the Crusaders and Crusaders coach Scott Robertson. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Then there's his record with the Crusaders, leading and being a huge part of seven consecutive Super Rugby title wins. The most satisfying surely was the 2022 win at Eden Park, in which he played perhaps his greatest game ever by systematically dismantling the Blues' lineout almost single-handedly. Just to show that it was no fluke, he repeated the effort a year later in Hamilton against the Chiefs.

The discussion of great players always involves the words 'probably', 'arguably' etc. when it comes to putting them in the pantheon of the top All Black side of all time. There isn't any need for Whitelock, he's proven himself through longevity and consistency, match winning ability and leadership. He's alongside another cast iron case for inclusion, Sir Colin Meads, in the second row.

The similarities between the two are hard to ignore. Farming backgrounds, family connections in the All Blacks, rugged styles of play, immense success while holding a reserved demeanour.

The only place where they start to diverge was Meads' almost psychopathic adherence to on field violence, something that Whitelock would have never gotten away with in this day and age even if he'd wanted to.

Sir Colin Meads breaks free during the 1971 Lions tour. Photosport / Peter Bush Collection Photo:

Whitelock was very much a proponent of not believing everything you read. Which is fitting because, just a week ago, the big rumour was that he was weighing up an offer by Scott Robertson to return home and potentially captain the All Blacks this season. The truth was the exact opposite, he was cutting his lucrative tenure in France short and heading home to spend time with his family.

Whitelock's earned it. He's spent more time on a rugby field representing New Zealand than anyone else, and it's likely if Meads is watching on from the heavens right now, he'd highly approve of the way Whitelock went about it.

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