Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Enforcer Whitelock lifts his game

With the beard and his frame filling out by the day, Sam Whitelock looks every bit the All Black hard man.

There's no escaping the truth that Kiwis have an indelible perception of what an All Black enforcer should be all about - and that vision is based on Colin Meads.

Think hard men, think Meads - that's how it goes.

And Whitelock is presenting himself this year as a modern version, almost as the archetypal man of the land - an entirely wholesome product of a rural Kiwi upbringing.

Whitelock's slow, measured, non-committal responses only enhance the impression he's a man of action and not words. But what has mostly confirmed he's now arguably the world's best lock is the way he's elevated the intimidatory nature of his game.

In the All Blacks' quest to establish themselves as the toughest pack in the world game, it will be Whitelock leading the charge. His new-found levels of aggression and physicality are the greatest single difference between the All Blacks of 2013 and the All Blacks of 2012.

He has been as strong aerially as Victor Matfield in his prime, as athletic and mobile as Ali Williams in his and he's been close to Brad Thorn in terms of his ability to physically dominate and intimidate.

Typically, Whitelock isn't entirely comfortable when trying to explain the transformation.

"I'm no different to anyone [in] that I am trying to improve my individual game," he says. "I have tried to go out there and let my natural game flow and when I have allowed that to happen my performances haven't been too bad. I try not to do too much - just let my game flow."

He's done more than that. He gave the Crusaders genuine edge and it was his thunderous effort in the second test that did most to subdue the French. The importance of his coming of age as a genuine hard man shouldn't be underplayed..

The great All Black sides have contained granite-tough men: individual hard nuts who have provided collective menace. The brilliant team that won the inaugural World Cup had a 10-point head start the instant they listed Richard Loe, Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Alan Whetton and Buck Shelford in their starting XV.

Whitelock is shaping as the central plank in this team. He's starting to unnerve opponents who keep an eye on the clock - counting the minutes until they can escape to the sanctity of the changing room.

"As a tight forward you have to have a certain level of that - you need to make sure your physicality is at a certain level," says Whitelock.

"Playing with various guys around the franchises has helped with that. I have looked at how I want to express myself out there." will have live updates of Saturday's Bledisloe Cup clash from 9.45pm. Join Steven Holloway for all the action for the opening Rugby Championship encounter.

- NZ Herald

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