Sam White­lock

THERE WERE THREE MEN VY­ING TO CAP­TAIN THE ALL BLACKS THIS JUNE IN THE AB­SENCE OF KIERAN READ. SAM WHITE­LOCK WON THE RACE.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents - Gre­gor Paul ex­plains why.

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.

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