Crusaders stars in doubt for All Blacks opener

Sam Whitelock of the Crusaders celebrates with teammates in the dressing room. Photo: Getty Images
Sam Whitelock of the Crusaders celebrates with teammates in the dressing room. Photo: Getty Images
Sam Whitelock is in serious doubt for the All Blacks’ opening Rugby Championship test in Argentina next week after defying medical advice to help lead the Crusaders to their seventh straight Super Rugby title.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson hailed Whitelock as an immortal after the 34-year-old returned against all odds – and medical opinion – from a troublesome Achilles issue to play 80 minutes in the Super Rugby final victory over the Chiefs on Saturday.

That effort may have come at a cost, though.

Prior to the finale at Waikato Stadium, Whitelock missed the Crusaders quarter-final and semifinal wins which led to All Blacks coach Ian Foster suggesting he would sit out the final.

Having defied those predictions to play a leading role in his farewell match for the Crusaders, Whitelock is now under an injury cloud for the All Blacks. While he will be among the 36-man squad that leaves for Mendoza this weekend, Whitelock appears unlikely to feature against Michael Cheika’s Pumas.

With five tests until the World Cup the All Blacks will be reluctant to risk Whitelock at this juncture.

"He played during that recovery period so we’ve got to see how he transitions in the next week or two," Foster said as the All Blacks completed their first training session as a full squad opposite the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium on Wednesday.

"He made a decision based on the medical advice he got and, in many senses, rolled the dice and got through it. He’s not right to train today so we’ve got to deal with what we’ve got right now."

Asked if the test centurion will face the Pumas, Foster did not appear optimistic: "I don’t know, we’ll just have to assess it in the next couple of days. He’s pretty sore though."

Immediately after clinching another title with the Crusaders Whitelock noted his decision to play would put him at odds with Foster.

"The body is definitely sore, I think I’ll be in a bit of trouble with All Blacks management," Whitelock said. "But so good to sign off for a number of guys who have had a massive career with the Crusaders."

Crusaders wing Leicester Fainga'anuku tries to bust through the Chiefs' defence in the Super...
Crusaders wing Leicester Fainga'anuku tries to bust through the Chiefs' defence in the Super Rugby Pacific final. Photo: Getty Images
If Whitelock is held back next week Crusaders captain Scott Barrett and veteran Brodie Retallick will be favoured to pack down in the second row, with Chiefs lock Tupou Vaa’i likely to feature off the bench.

Crusaders wing Leicester Fainga’anuku is also doubtful for the Pumas with a tight calf which could potentially pave the way for Caleb Clarke to retain his left wing role.

Foster indicated in-form Chiefs fullback Shaun Stevenson will travel to Argentina as injury cover for Blues wing Mark Telea. Ditto for Hurricanes prop Tevita Mafileo as cover for Fletcher Newell, who could return from his long-term toe complaint in the next two weeks.

"There’s a few bodies and injuries we’re still assessing over the next couple of days."

The All Blacks will, at this stage, not call in additional midfield cover while Anton Lienert-Brown serves his three-week suspension – that could be reduced to two matches – for his tackle on Dallas McLeod in the Super Rugby final.

Four days on from the Super Rugby final Foster is attempting to integrate the hefty Crusaders and Chiefs contingent following their combative exchanges and end of season celebrations.

"World Cup years we don’t have a lot of time, we know that, so it makes every day important to us.

"We’ve haven’t got a formula that says the finalists won’t play this week. We’re keen to build some combinations but we’ve got to tread that line between looking at what we’ve got this week and where the energy levels are. There will be 36 guys on the plane."

Three All Blacks – Sam Cane, Lienert-Brown and Luke Jacobson, the latter firmly in the harsh category – conceding yellow cards in the final for the Chiefs sparked concerns about discipline and composure in pressure situations as the test season and World Cup loom into full view.

"We don’t want them, and I’m sure the Chiefs didn’t want them," Foster acknowledged. "Sometimes there’s a bit of a lesson there. Sometimes your senior players can want something so badly they overextend or force a play when they don’t need to. It’s like every pressure moment, there’s some great lessons in that.

"Sam’s decision near the end, people were very aggressive in that space in that whole game and he probably tried once too often, but the breakdown has become a very competitive state."