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Sam Whitelock badly needs a break and is set to miss the Crusaders' first four matches next season in an attempt to recuperate fully before the All Blacks' World Cup defence.
The New Zealand Herald understands the lock's energy levels are nearly depleted after a huge year in which he led the Crusaders to back-to-back Super Rugby titles and has had to go above and beyond to cover for the absence of Brodie Retallick at the All Blacks.
For Whitelock, the end of the year is in sight and the prospect of an extended summer break is likely to be very welcome. Three big tests remain - tomorrow's third Bledisloe Cup clash against the Wallabies in Yokohama after which, should he remain fit, he will travel to London to prepare to start against England at Twickenham on November 11 and the same again against Ireland in Dublin a week later.
After that the 29-year-old will be done for the year and isn't likely to be back on the field until the Crusaders' round five match away against the Highlanders on March 16.
Unfortunately for the Crusaders and their coach Scott Robertson, the defending champions play the Blues, Hurricanes and Chiefs in the first four rounds in 2019. Skipper Whitelock, an often inspirational figure in the Crusaders' derby matches over the past two years, will be missed but the break is understood to be a non-negotiable in such an important year for the national team.
The return to fitness of Retallick, probably the best lock in world rugby, will take some of the pressure off Whitelock, who has started in eight of the All Blacks' last nine tests and came off the bench in the other, as the rest of the year plays out. The pair have been standouts in their position for the past seven years and, along with another key player, Beauden Barrett, are off contract after next year's World Cup in Japan.
All three are understood to be negotiating with New Zealand Rugby about new four-year deals, all of which will include sabbatical clauses.
Whitelock, who has played 105 tests, recently went on the record as saying he was considering a playing sabbatical in Japan, as are Retallick and Barrett, but it might not be as simple as that for the Crusaders player in particular.
New Zealand Rugby are understood to be reluctant to allow both Whitelock and Retallick to both go on sabbatical and be unavailable for the All Blacks at the same time. And in Whitelock's case, there could be a reluctance to allow him to play at all while he is on sabbatical due to his standing as vice-captain and the leading contender to replace Kieran Read as skipper should the No8 call it quits after the World Cup.
A reminder of priorities isn't without precedence as far as All Blacks captains go. Read was keen to represent New Zealand in sevens at the Rio Olympics in 2016 until he was told by coach Steve Hansen a year earlier that that might not be the wisest thing to do.
Richie McCaw, Read's predecessor as All Blacks skipper, took only non-playing sabbaticals in order to refresh physically and mentally and that is a template Whitelock is likely to be asked to follow.
It is understood that neither Whitelock, Retallick nor Barrett will be allowed to play for the All Blacks while they are away (most likely in 2020), but in Barrett's case that could be a blessing in disguise because it would allow first-five rivals Richie Mo'unga and Damian McKenzie extended runs in the No10 jersey and therefore significantly increase their development.
As far as locks are concerned in New Zealand, Whitelock and Retallick are well out on their own, with Scott Barrett, who has made a good fist of his nine tests this year (seven of them starts), third and daylight next.
- By Patrick McKendry