THERE WERE THREE MEN VYING TO CAPTAIN THE ALL BLACKS THIS JUNE IN THE ABSENCE OF KIERAN READ. SAM WHITELOCK WON THE RACE.
has been given the chance to lead the All Blacks against France and we look at what makes the big man tick and why the selectors think he is the right man for the job.
It was mid-way through 2010 when Richie McCaw was asked about who he felt might be the right man to replace him as All Blacks captain when the time finally came.
He didn’t need to think too hard for an answer. He was pretty sure that Kieran Read had everything he needed to become a good All Blacks captain and in time reckoned the great man, Sam Whitelock had all the qualities, too.
Clearly, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen agreed because in 2012 the process of grooming Read as McCaw’s successor began and in 2016 a reasonably smooth transfer was made.
McCaw retired after the World Cup and there was no drama or doubt about what would happen. In early February 2016 Hansen announced that Read would be taking over and that year the All Blacks went on to win the Rugby Championship, Bledisloe Cup and take out a world record of 18 consecutive victories.
It was business as usual as Read was able to deliver strong, consistent and effective leadership.
Read is missing from the June series as he is still recovering from major back surgery and again, the hope is that there will be an equally smooth transition.
Whitelock has been asked to captain the side for the series against France after stepping in for Read in the last game of 2017. And he’s been asked because in the last 18 months Whitelock has become a dominant personality on the field.
He took over the leadership of the Crusaders last year and did a superb job. He was a natural and inspiring captain and led the Crusaders to their first title in eight years.
But still, he wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice to step in for last year’s test against Wales. Ben Smith, the team’s long term vice-captain, was on sabbatical so not an option in Cardiff.
Sam Cane was there, though, and given that he had been asked to lead the team against Namibia in 2015 and Italy in 2016, many thought he’d be asked to be the captain against Wales as well.
Cane, still only 23 when he captained the side for the first time, was spoken about by Hansen as a potential long-term successor to McCaw and Read. It was Cane who was being groomed, or at least appeared to be, to succeed Read. So it was Cane and not Whitelock who was the short-odds favourite to captain the team in Cardiff.
But Whitelock was given the honour primarily because Cane wasn’t guaranteed to play the full 80 minutes given the pounding he’d taken throughout the year.
When it became certain that Read was not going to recover in time to play in June, the intrigue about who would replace him as captain was intense.
The short list had three names on it: Ben Smith, Cane and Whitelock. All three were strong candidates. Hansen had the certainty that he had three men who would all have been able to do the job well.
If there has been a feature of this year’s Super Rugby competition that has perhaps gone unremarked, it is the growth and stature of the various captains around the country.
From being a little light on imposing figures after the 2015 World Cup, New Zealand now has an abundance of strong, commanding captains who are proving themselves week by week.
Smith grabbed national headlines in the early rounds when he marched off the try line before a conversion was to be taken to ask the referee to get some guidance from the TMO. Smith actually picked up the ball to prevent Crusaders first-five Mitch Hunt kicking and that was the bit that got everyone a little troubled.
Some said it was disrespectful and against the spirit of the game that Smith had marched so forcefully towards the referee. But if Hunt had kicked the ball that would have been it – the opportunity to review the build up to the try would have been lost.
So there was just as strong an argument to be made that Smith had shown bold and strong leadership and had done exactly the right thing. That he was proven right by the footage – which showed that Tim Bateman had knocked on – only added to the belief that Smith’s captaincy had been spot on.
Cane took big steps in his leadership, too, showing that being sole captain of the Chiefs suited him well. His finest moment came in the game against the Blues in Hamilton when the home side encountered a resilient opponent and some frustrating refereeing.
The Chiefs laid siege to the Blues tryline in the second half, needing one try to get in front on the scoreboard, but the big breakthrough wouldn’t come despite the fact the Blues were collapsing what felt like every scrum.
The frustration was mounting and the Chiefs could have imploded, but Cane held
firm and made sure his teammates did, too. He calmed everyone down, kept constructive dialogue with the referee and after 32 minutes, the Chiefs were awarded a penalty try.
Afterwards Cane showed just how smart and composed he is. “From experience, you can’t allow frustration to start creeping into your brain, otherwise it just dominates and affects the way you play the rest of the game” he said.
“We were creating opportunities and not finishing them off, and it felt like sometimes we weren’t getting the calls that we really wanted, and the combination of those two things... a couple of times we just brought the key decision makers in and said ‘lads let’s not get frustrated’, we’ll get our crack and we’ll make the most of it when we do.”
Whitelock’s big moment came in the Crusaders’ staggering comeback win against the Waratahs. At 29-0 down as they were after 30 minutes, they could have been facing a horribly big loss and yet Whitelock had the confidence to gather his team around him and demand that they retain faith in the gameplan, but just tone down the risky offloads and 50:50 passes to build some continuity.
He put the emphasis a little harder on retaining possession but not at the expense of playing their natural game and three tries came in eight minutes.
The Crusaders surged on in the second half to win 31-29 and as much as it was a triumph for the resilience of the players, it was a tribute to Whitelock’s captaincy.
With three good men to choose from, Hansen explained why he went with Whitelock as captain.
“Sammy [Whitelock] did a fantastic job last year with us in Wales. We liked what we saw there but it could have easily have been Ben Smith or Sam Cane. Both of them are leading really well too.
“He’s one half of the best locking combination in the world and one of the best players on and off the park. He has a cool head under pressure and the support of the players and management.
“We do like the idea of having someone up front having a voice and being able to communicate straight away with the ref and being able to drive that and hence why we’ve named a vice-captain in Sam Cane. We want clarity if we do lose Sam [Whitelock] to an injury or sub him during the game.”
There’s no real mystery as to what the All Blacks expect from their captain. They want world class performance – for their captain to lead by example.
It has served them well over the years. Think back to 2004 and 2005 and how Tana Umaga was so often the best player on the park or close to it.
On the days he wasn’t the best, it was typically one of either Dan Carter or Richie McCaw who had been better and the latter of course would go on to be the most successful and best captain the All Blacks have produced.
McCaw was first and foremost an incredible player whose standards never slipped in 148 tests and performance was at the heart of his leadership for 12 years.
Read, who emerged in the McCaw era,
HE’S ONE HALF OF THE BEST LOCKING COMBINATION IN THE WORLD AND ONE OF THE BEST PLAYERS ON AND OFF THE PARK. HE HAS A COOL HEAD UNDER PRESSURE AND THE SUPPORT OF THE PLAYERS AND MANAGEMENT.’ STEVE HANSEN
[ABOVE] CHAMPION PERFORMANCE Whitelock led the Crusaders superbly last year.
[ABOVE RIGHT] BEST IN SHOW Whitelock was deservedly New Zealand’s player of the year in 2017.
COMING OF AGE Whitelock was calm and assured against the Waratahs this year when the Crusaders went 29-0 down.