Razor approaches Sam Whitelock about ABs comeback

Sam Whitelock and Scott Robertson. Photo: Getty Images
Sam Whitelock and Scott Robertson. Photo: Getty Images
One of the great sporting comebacks may be on the cards later this year as All Blacks coach Scott Robertson has made a play to persuade Sam Whitelock to return to New Zealand and resume his test career.

The man who won hundreds of lineouts for the All Blacks, who thundered into more rucks than anyone could possibly recall, who produced the unforgettable turnover to thwart Ireland’s 37-phase effort to rescue last year’s World Cup quarter-final, and the man who said last year that his days of playing international rugby were over – is potentially going to write a postscript to his incredible test career.

The veteran lock, who thought he had played his last game for the All Blacks in the World Cup final, is considering returning to New Zealand after a compelling sales pitch from Robertson who was recently in Europe and Japan.

Robertson and his coaching team are not convinced Whitelock is done as an international force – they saw him deliver outstanding performances at the World Cup last year and believe that if he came back to New Zealand in June this year after the French club season wraps up, that he’d be in contention to add to his test tally of 153 caps and push past the world record of appearance set by Welsh lock Alun Wynn-Jones.

The new All Blacks coach has a long and trusted relationship with Whitelock after working together at the Crusaders for seven years and he believes that the most experienced test player in New Zealand history could still add significant value to this year’s squad both as a player, leader and mentor.

Whitelock will turn 36 this October, but Robertson and his coaching team believe that the former Crusaders captain could eke out at least one more test season, possibly two, where he would be in contention to start each test.

But they also see value in having him back within the squad, where his experience, leadership and mana would bolster the rugby IQ of the whole group.

The post-World Cup exodus saw the All Blacks lose players with an accumulated 500-plus test caps – Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga – and there is a desire to restore some of that experience and know-how by bringing back Whitelock – who began his test career in 2010 and who has played at four World Cups.

Robertson and the bulk of his coaching team – except for forwards coach Jason Ryan and head of performance Nic Gill – are new to international rugby and for them, there will also be much to be gained from having Whitelock to lean on for advice.

It’s also not clear yet who Robertson is considering as his captain, but again, having Whitelock available to help whoever is chosen, and potentially do the role himself occasionally, would be of major benefit.

There’s a separate and specific other role for Whitelock to play should he return – which is to use his encyclopaedic knowledge of both lineout, set-piece and positional play to fast-track the development of a cohort of young, but promising locks that will inevitably find their way into the All Blacks this year as the team regenerates.

Robertson has publicly stated that finding test-ready locks is one of his priorities this year following the decisions by both Whitelock and Brodie Retallick to leave New Zealand after last year’s World Cup.

Those two would be widely considered the greatest locking partnership New Zealand has produced, and individually both would stack among the best in history.

Using Whitelock to help the likes of Josh Lord, Quinten Strange and Tupou Vai’i to learn the art of locking at test level is an undeniably smart move.

There’s also a group of uncapped locks who have caught the eye in the first few rounds of Super Rugby – the likes of Jamie Hannah at the Crusaders, Manaaki Selby-Rickit at the Chiefs and Fabian Holland at the Highlanders (although he may have eligibility issues to overcome still), to suggest that the production line is in good health and that Robertson has the luxury of knowing he has plenty of good options whether Whitelock comes home or not.

But having Whitelock would give Robertson greater options as well as the ability to get more out of the next generation of locks that he decides to pick.

It’s not clear yet when Whitelock is likely to decide about his future.

He is currently playing in France, where he will have the option at the end of the club season in June to either stay there for another season or return to New Zealand, contingent on him being able to secure a Super Rugby contract for 2025.

His club, Pau, are mid-table and potentially on track to make the play-offs, which are scheduled for mid-June.

If Whitelock did return after his French commitments end, he’d have to receive an exemption to be immediately available – but the NZR board has granted these quickly in the past, most notably to Luke McAlister when he returned from the UK in 2009 and was wanted by the All Blacks for the June series when they were hit with injuries.

By Gregor Paul