There's no real mystery as to what the All Blacks are looking for in their captain. They want world class performance — for their captain to lead by example, be the best player in the team.

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.


Kieran Read, who emerged in the McCaw era, has been a disciple of the performance-first philosophy and last year he produced a number of stunning solo moments in times of real need for the All Blacks.

But with Read not likely to return to action until July, the All Blacks must take on France next month with a stand-in captain who will be named on Sunday.

The short list has three names on it: Ben Smith, Sam Cane and Sam Whitelock. All three meet the quality player criteria.

Smith has been a spell-binding All Black since 2013; the sort of player who has gathered admirers around the world for the way he so effortlessly finds a way to be influential.

But he'll be 32 when the series kicks off, hardly ancient but old enough to believe his playing days won't extend much past Read's and hence he's not an investment in the future.

Besides, modern coaches are resistant to the idea that a fullback or wing can effectively captain a test team and Smith's real value seems to be as an able and willing deputy.

Which leaves the two Sams, both of whom have previously captained the All Blacks, both of whom are in great form and both of whom are likely to be playing test football long after Read has said farewell.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen could easily and readily justify picking either as his captain.

Still only 26, Cane has the potential to establish himself as a great All Black. He's grown immeasurably in the last 18 months and has convinced a once sceptical public that he's a world class openside.

No one in New Zealand tackles harder than Cane. No other No 7 is as combative and imposing and Cane has shown himself to be a mature and assured captain of the Chiefs this year.

He's led the side mostly on the strength of his work rate, discipline and defence but there have also been times when his decision-making has been excellent and tactical awareness obvious.

Cane has made a strong case, shown he's ready and yet for all the boxes he can tick, Whitelock can tick more.

Whitelock has been playing with such authority and presence for the last two years now that he carries himself with the mana of an All Blacks captain.

He is the world's best lineout and aerial lock. He is, best anyone can tell, an engine with big horse power in the scrum and he clatters bodies in the contact zone.

He's also become more of an impact player away from the set-piece, regularly winning turnovers, making dainty offloads and carrying the ball harder.

Whitelock was rightly named New Zealand's player of the year in 2017 and is playing every bit as well this year.

He is, without question, a player who can lead by performance. But he's also developed that invaluable art of being able to stay calm under the most intense pressure and explain to those around him, exactly what he wants them to do.

There was no better example of that than last week's miraculous 31-29 comeback win by the Crusaders. At 29-0 down, as they were after 30 minutes, they could have imploded 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.

It wasn't just what he said that changed the game, it was the way his body language oozed calm even when it felt like the game was just about over for them as the Waratahs were scoring with extraorindary ease and regularity.

There was not the first hint of Whitelock being worried by the situation and seeing their skipper so composed and untroubled had an enormous impact on keeping the young Crusaders around him on task and focused on what needed to be done.

It was strong and inspiring captaincy that was bolstered by the role he played in winning lineout ball and through a combination of his age, his form, his experience and his ability, Whitelock stacks as the right man to lead the All Blacks against France.

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