When he runs out at Hamilton’s FMG Stadium on Saturday, Crusaders institution Sam Whitelock will join an elite club of NZ rugby players.
Whitelock will become just the sixth Kiwi to reach the 350 first-class games, putting his name alongside the likes of Sir Colin Meads, Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett and Liam Messam.
On the eve of his milestone, the 34-year-old took some time to reflect on his own journey, where the wide-eyed kid from Manawatu has become the elder statesman of a Crusaders dressing room which is now much more Gen-Z than Gen-Y.
Reminiscing on his own initiation to the Crusaders squad as a 20-year-old back in 2010, Whitelock singled out one senior player who became somewhat of a mentor – cross-code star Brad Thorn.
The Australian rugby league superstar turned All Blacks lock was deep amid the twilight of his career when Whitelock showed up from Palmerston North, and quickly took – albeit inadvertently – the youngster under his wing.
Thorn’s discipline on and off the field made a huge impression, Whitelock admitted, teaching some valuable lessons about the realities of professional sport.
With 22 years at the highest level underneath his belt, Thorn and his regimented approach proved the ideal figurehead for Whitelock to emulate.
“He had that typical Aussie way about things,” Whitelock said. “He used to love getting into the gym, putting his singlet on and getting stuck in.
“He really installed a lot of the basics in me – the recovery, the stretching, the eating well, the mental side of it.
“He was a massive part of it.”
Whitelock showed up a relative stringbean at 104 kg and under Thorn’s tutelage, was eventually tipping the scales at 124 kg, with his newfound focus in the weight room paying dividends.
As they typically always have, the Crusaders squad – in addition to Thorn – boasted a wealth of test riches in their second-row, including Chris Jack, Ross Filipo, and Issac Ross, a valuable commodity for an ambitious but green Whitelock.
“I had all these guys there that were playing for the All Blacks or had played for the All Blacks and I just had an opportunity to look at what they did well, and try and take all their strengths and hopefully none of their weaknesses,” he added.
The most recent inductee to the 350-club is Whitelock’s childhood friend and 1st XV teammate at Feilding High School – Aaron Smith.
Smith achieved the feat during the Highlanders early last month and Whitelock quickly reached out to offer his congratulations to his old mate, reflecting on their unlikely shared journey to the top, which has included a World Cup triumph in 2015.
As for just how much he has left in the tank, Whitelock has yet to commit beyond his current deal with NZ Rugby, which expires at the end of the upcoming Rugby World Cup, but confirms he’s “working through a few things at the moment”.
Crusaders and All Blacks coach elect Scott Robertson hopes he’ll have Whitelock’s services for a few more years yet – both in the red and the black jerseys.
“He’s a man of resilience. He’s a man of true professionalism, on and off the field. Every game matters a lot to him
“There’s not much between his top performance and his bottom – he’s so consistent…his standards that he keeps are what a Crusader is all about.
“He’s performing like he has another couple of years, for sure. I’ll have to ring up his agent and have another couple of conversations I think.”
And Whitelock has a much more prestigious milestone ahead of him this season, when he’ll surpass Richie McCaw as the most capped All Black of all time.
With 143 caps to his name, the 34-year-old is just five appearances shy of his former Crusaders teammate (148).
Two World Cups and four Super Rugby titles. Not bad for a kid from Palmy, who once upon a time didn’t even believe he had what it took to reach NPC level.
“I never thought I’d play for Manawatu let alone go on and have the career I’ve had.”
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