Rugby World Cup: How unbreakable Sam Whitelock turned back time to save the All Blacks
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We all know old Father Time is undefeated, and likely to remain so as long as he’s swinging the dukes. But could it be that the All Blacks’ own ageless wonder, Sam Whitelock, is in the process of taking the great leveller the distance? 

The 34-year-old, now 146-cap second-row marvel is about to tick off some pretty significant achievements as he heads with the suddenly chipper All Blacks for the tenth edition of the Rugby World Cup in France (September 8 kickoff). After tucking away the final warmup game against the Boks at Twickenham on Saturday (NZT), where he started at lock alongside Scott Barrett, he clearly remains a pivotal part of a group seeking to break their nation's tie with South Africa and claim their fourth global title, and third in the last four.

This will be Whitelock’s fourth World Cup – gaining him entry to an exclusive club of New Zealanders alongside the great Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Keven Mealamu – and some time during the tournament, round about when pool play morphs into knockout footy, he will match and then surpass McCaw’s record 148 tests as the most capped All Black of all time. This is hallowed territory, no matter how you cut it up.

He is also a chance – a damn sight warmer than he was less than 12 months ago – of becoming the first player in the history of the game to be part of three World Cup-winning teams, following his Webb Ellis Cup-lifting feats of 2011 and ‘15. There is a lot of water to flow under that bridge, but it is a tantalising prospect that will come into focus as the quadrennial global event reaches its pointy end.

Whitelock is special. That much is beyond dispute. Only McCaw and the great Alun Wyn Jones (170 caps for Wales and the Lions) have played more tests than the Feilding-bred, Christchurch-domiciled second-rower, and he appears to be very much at the peak of his powers in the midst of a turn-back-the-clock season.

In fact you can probably track a late-career resurgence back a couple of years. Late in 2021, when the All Blacks were limping to the end of a challenging Covid-impacted campaign with back-to-back defeats to Ireland and France in their backyards, it appeared that Whitelock was on the decline. He and second-row partner Brodie Retallick (they have started a world-record 65 tests together) had been outplayed by the best of the north in both matchups in Dublin and Paris and there were even whispers calling for a changing of the guard.

If Whitelock heard them, he just gritted his teeth. He went away, got his body right, cleared the mind, and came out in 2022 and was huge for the Crusaders in their march to a sixth straight championship, then started 11 of the 13 tests for the All Blacks through a challenging season, and stood tall as the senior players turned the ship around and saved their coach’s job.

If anything, he has been even better in ‘23, immense for the Red and Blacks through eight starts in another title-winning campaign and then, after wading through an Achilles issue towards the end of Super Rugby, has come out strong through his first two test appearances ahead of Saturday’s final hitout against the Boks at Twickenham.

The 2.02-metre bruiser showed his versatility with a delightful 30-minute cameo off the bench in the All Blacks’ 38-7 victory over Australia in Melbourne, and then a week later uncorked a vintage display back as a starter in the Bledisloe rematch in Dunedin.

That Forsyth Barr performance was astounding. Not only was Whitelock commanding at the lineout, a titan in the tight and a demon on defence, but he changed the game with his play over the ball at the ruck in the second half. This was a veteran All Black, in a new-look team struggling for fluency, literally taking the game by the scruff of that signature display.

“From a group point of view the younger guys are looking at a guy closing in on 150 tests, and the way he has the ability to turn up every single day with the same mindset of doing whatever it takes to put it on the field is pretty inspiring,” says skipper Sam Cane.

“He’s a calming figure among the pack. He’s got more experience than anyone going around, but he fronted up big time and won some crucial turnovers at times we were under pressure. He was huge again.”

Veteran halfback Aaron Smith was equally impressed: “He’s a legend of our game, and he’s pretty clutch in those moments. He just knows when to do the right thing, where to win the lineout … Sam is a class guy in those situations, saying the right things in the huddle to keep us calm. Guys like that are dependable. They always show up. They’re always there.”

Adds forwards coach Jason Ryan: “He’s got immense experience and his game understanding in big moments is phenomenal. He got four turnovers (against the Wallabies), so he impacted in his own way, as well as doing his job pretty well in the lineouts. For him to put in such a good shift is a great confidence booster – for him and us.”

Former All Black lock Ian Jones says Whitelock’s presence is vital at this World Cup. “He’s proven he can handle the stage, and he’s not overawed by those big moments . There will be a time when the All Blacks are under pressure, when they need to regroup, need to consolidate, and Sam can sense that.That’s what experience does.

“The experience that Sam Whitelock brings Sunday to Saturday morning is invaluable … whether he comes on or starts, he brings an understanding of his role, and his partnership with either Barrett or Retallick is going to be seamless.”

In many ways Whitelock’s value to the All Blacks, as the RWC kickoff against France draws closer, is even more enhanced with Retallick nursing a knee injury likely to rule him out until at least the second clash against Namibia on September 15. The veteran’s established relationship with Barrett, who just happens to be playing the rugby of his life, makes Retallick’s absence more an inconvenience than a concern.

“He’s always been important to us. He’s always been a special part of this team,” says All Blacks coach Ian Foster. “We’ve given him a different role this year. He came off the bench for one test, and did that well. And he started well … we know what Sam does and I know how motivated he is for this campaign. He’s willing to respond to the challenge of the form of the other locks – so it’s a pretty competitive situation.”

This is almost certainly Whitelock’s last lap of the track with his beloved All Blacks. He heads off after RWC to join his brother Luke at the Pau club in France on a two-year deal. What price the ageless wonder skipping round Father Time to complete one last triumph?