It has been quite the year for Sam Whitelock.

Leading the Crusaders to a second successive Super Rugby title, playing his 100th test and captaining the All Blacks four times.

All the while, for the past seven months, carrying a debilitating injury he is only now revealing.

Whitelock is the type of stoic bloke who has to be told he isn't playing.

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Even then, it is a struggle to hold him back.

He will always do everything in his power to feature in every minute of every match.

"I've been dealing with a groin, a stomach tear, so the middle part of the season, I haven't been able to run as fast as I would like," Whitelock told the Herald ahead of the headline test against Ireland in Dublin.

"That's been pretty much hanging round since April and just starting to go away. There was a big chunk of trying to look after that, which compromises training, but I'm feeling pretty good energy-wise.

"It was pretty frustrating not being able to hit top speed for a big chunk of the season but it's been a great year, a challenging year.

"It's one of those things as a rugby player. You either have two kinds of injuries: one you can't play and the other where it just hurts. Being a tight forward, that's just the way it is. There's always something that's sore, and you've got to put it to one side and deal with it."

Whitelock has clearly grown into a hugely influential figure with the Crusaders, where he has been skipper for the past two title-winning seasons, and All Blacks to the point he is expected to assume the national captaincy from Kieran Read after next year's World Cup.

While that role is one he now aspires to, leading did not come naturally.

"It's something, especially when I was younger, I never really wanted to do. Over time, I was looking for a bit more of a challenge, and that leadership side was a big area. I was pretty happy to sit there and let others do the talking and let my game do mine.

"I'd still say I'm a little bit that way now. I wouldn't over-speak or say too much, but hopefully when I do open my mouth, it's on the money."

This season, Whitelock extracted as much pride watching Heiden Bedwell-Curtis and Matt Todd step up in his absence for the Crusaders.

Witnessing Richie Mo'unga boss around such an experienced forward pack proved another personal highlight.

These days, Whitelock revels in all aspects of leadership — from picking the right moment to speak with referees, to the challenge of assisting the likes of Mo'unga to assume responsibility, to the tactical side of deciding whether to take the shot or have a crack for a try.

"You don't get that right all the time, but when you do, it's really rewarding. Sometimes it's hard — you might be playing really well, but making a few wrong decisions as a leader, but then it's also reversed, too. You've got to put your personal game to the side and make really good calls."

Whitelock emerged under some great leaders, none more respected than Richie McCaw, but his style connects more with Read, who he swaps roles with at the Crusaders
and All Blacks.

As a senior figure, Whitelock gradually learned to understand what Read expected, and that everyone goes about inspiring those around them in their own way.

"Richie was very 'this is my team, this is how I want it done', where myself, I probably let other people express themselves a bit more, and if it gets goes too far from where I want it, I will probably step in and say something. It's not saying one is better than the other, it's just a little bit different.

"If you asked any Kiwi kid, 'do you want to be All Black captain?' most of them would say they'd love to. If that ever does happen, it would be pretty cool to say you achieved that in your playing career."

Sam Whitelock of the New Zealand All Blacks walks through St Stephens Green in Dubin. Photo / Getty Images.
Sam Whitelock of the New Zealand All Blacks walks through St Stephens Green in Dubin. Photo / Getty Images.

Once this season is finished, Whitelock will reluctantly sit out the first four rounds of Super Rugby next year, with a view to getting his body right for a tilt at his third World Cup.

"People have said I'm pretty stubborn and that's probably not far wrong. If I think I can play and make a difference for the team, I'll get out there and play whether I'm at 100 per cent or 70 per cent."

He does, however, appreciate the reasoning behind the need to refresh. The rewards of both a physical and mental break have been obvious in Ben Smith post his sabbatical, and Owen Franks after his late start following Achilles tendon surgery this season.

Use his wisely, and the 30-year-old knows he, too, will return ready to fire.

"The way Ben came back and played and is still playing, you can see the benefits from that. Mentally, he is in such a good space. He said after about two weeks, he was ready to go, but the best thing was he took that time because there's no point coming back too early.

"If you look at the guys that do have a break, whether it's forced or unforced, they tend to come back and play really well, and that's something I want to do."

Whitelock has some big decisions to make around his future, ones which he plans to ponder long and hard over summer.

He, like locking partner Brodie Retallick and first-five Beauden Barrett, is considering a stint in Japan after the World Cup, while the prospect of playing in France, where
older brother Adam spent time with Bayonne, is another option.

Realistically, though, turning down the honour of All Blacks captain would be difficult.

"The decisions used to be pretty easy between my wife and I, but now we've got a son coming up to two and another one on the way, so those aren't as quick and easy.

"When I get home from this and having a bit of a longer break, there will be a good amount of time to unwind and clear my head of all the rugby stuff. Then we can have a good look at it and see what we're both thinking.

Sam Whitelock plays with son Fred while Kieran Read looks on during an All Blacks training session earlier this season. Photo / Getty
Sam Whitelock plays with son Fred while Kieran Read looks on during an All Blacks training session earlier this season. Photo / Getty

"I'm a bit of a deep thinker at times, so making sure I make the right decision for us will come with time, rather than trying to rush things.

"For anyone at any stage of their career, you've got to talk to people you trust and gather as much information as we can and make an informed decision."