Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Locked in with little fanfare

Sam Whitelock's ball-handling skills are icing on the cake for the All Black selectors. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Sam Whitelock's ball-handling skills are icing on the cake for the All Black selectors. Photo / Brett Phibbs

While the rugby noise continued to belch north of the equator, a very significant All Black signing slipped quietly into the news cycle.

Senior lock Sam Whitelock likes it that way. He's old-school with a preference for making statements in his sporting gear rather than reacting to an increasing range of inquiries from the fourth estate but he knew the drill.

When he fronted as Crusaders skipper to talk about his side's match of the round with the Stormers, questions about the visit from the Lions and his decision to stay for a third crack at World Cup success in 2019 took precedence.

Normally Kieran Read would handle those duties but with the All Black skipper's late start because of wrist surgery and his range of national obligations, Crusaders coach Scott Robertson decided Whitelock would be the best fit as captain this season.

He's also a crucial component in the All Black mix with his tigerish locking partner Brodie Retallick and if that liaison is split or absent, as it was in Chicago last November, then rivals sense their chance as Ireland did so superbly on Guy Fawkes night.

Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner led the Irish locking rumble but have missed out to teammate Iain Henderson for the Lions trip.

Whitelock and Retallick are in an annual photo-finish for best test combination since they began their All Black partnership in 2012.

They've started 41 tests together, battled through two stalemates and suffered one defeat at the end of that initial season when England clobbered the All Blacks 38-21 at Twickenham. Neither of the English starting locks in that match, Joe Launchbury or Geoff Parling, made the cut for the Lions.

Whitelock made his Super Rugby debut in 2010 and his All Black debut against Ireland where he scored two tries coming off the bench as the visitors struggled once Jamie Heaslip was sent off.

It was 10 tests before Whitelock graduated from the subs bench to start later that year. However, by the 2011 World Cup he was an automatic selection in the second row and has now played 84 internationals.

His skills are top-level and Whitelock also carries the enforcer's edge which is mandatory for combat in the most exhausting contests. There have been times when his athletic prowess has been used at blindside flanker but he's hard-wired to be a lock with his considerable 2.03m and 122kg frame.

Whitelock may be reserved to the outside world but inside the All Blacks he's a strong voice and a highly effective contributor to the set-piece patterns which are so critical to the side's performances.

Both he and Retallick carry a ruthless energy which will be in high demand from the All Blacks to soak up an immense physical onslaught in the mid-year test series before they add their trimmings with their ball-handling skills or defensive reads out in midfield or along the touchline.

The list of All Black locking legends is led by Colin Meads but the range of production from Whitelock and Retallick suggests they would all share the work and subs duties in a mythical all-stars side.

- NZ Herald

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