Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images
Sam Whitelock draws back on his time in the black jersey ahead of another pressure-test against the Boks.
Sam Whitelock has seen it all before. Of course he has, over a 134-test All Blacks career that stretches back 13 seasons and some giddy peaks, interspersed with a few gut-wrenching lows.
So, as he ponders the latest predicament ahead of back-to-back tests against the Springboks in South Africa that are not just likely to decide the fate of the head coach – New Zealand Rugby boss Mark Robinson made that tantalisingly clear last Saturday – but indeed tell us a lot about the future prospects of an All Blacks team giving every indication of teetering on the brink, it was notable to hear him put things in fairly firm perspective.
The All Blacks’ most capped player said from the team’s training base in White River, just out of Mbombela, formerly Nelspruit in the northeast of the republic, that he knows exactly what to draw on as he looks to do his bit to negotiate a way out of the mire.
The players have held their own meetings, with the coaches, who are left adamant they can turn this team around.
“When I first came into the team we were going into a World Cup at home, and hadn’t won it for 24 years,” he said after the New Zealanders kicked off preparations with their customary “clarity” session. “There was a lot of external pressure, and the best advice I got from senior players was don’t read into the media, don’t worry about all those things, just control what you can control.
“That’s the main thing I’ve been telling the boys – think about yourself, control how you train, prepare and play. It was the best thing I got given as advice, and it’s still true now.”
But Whitelock acknowledged this was a different sort of position the All Blacks found themselves in after defeat in four of their last five tests, and a first home series loss in 28 years.
You have to go all the way back to 1998 for a worse funk (five straight defeats to Australia and South Africa from July 11 to August 29), though 2009’s four losses in eight tests, including a three-game sweep by the Boks, also offers eerie similarities.
“The pressure cooker is still on,” said Whitelock in response to a query on whether it was good to escape the reaction at home. “As players and as a team we’re always trying to put pressure on ourselves. But it is good for us to be over here. It’s a great time to work on what we need to work on, we’ve got great facilities, a training field nice and close to our hotel, so we can have a little more time on the field to improve.”
Improve they’ll surely need to against the predatory Boks who would have been watching the All Blacks’ descent since they rolled them on the Gold Coast last October with interest.The South Africans are not the team you want to expose your soft underbelly to.
“We’re always looking to get better – that shouldn’t change, win loss or draw,” added the 33-year-old lock who has tucked away 20 tests against the South Africans in his career. “But at the moment we know we have some areas we need to be better at. Conceding a couple of maul tries [against Ireland] is an obvious one for myself as a tight forward. That’s a key area I’m focused on.”
Whitelock talked about the predictable nature of the Boks’ game-plan and cautioned, “they’re smart guys, they play all around the world, and have a number of different styles they can go to … the beauty of rugby is sometimes you know how they’re going to play and it’s actually stopping it that’s the major one”.
He also brushed off any impact his Crusaders forwards coach Jason Ryan will be able to make in little more than a week with the team. “It falls on to us as players – we’ve got to go out there and perform for 80-plus minutes, whether that’s at set piece, round the field, the breakdown, defensively … it’s something we need to drive as players.”
Centre Rieko Ioane, coming off a flat series against Ireland, adopted a similar tone of self-ownership.
“As backs, we need to fire as well. We know we’re coming up against a world-class outfit, and we need to get better all over the park,” he said.
“It’s a completely different beast we’re facing this week. The Irish play how they play, the Africans have some similarities, but they’re smart footballers, they’ll see what we did [against Ireland], and we’ve got to plan for their absolute best game.
“Some of the toughest games I’ve played in the black jersey have been over here. Last time (a 32-30 victory in Pretoria in 2018) it went beyond the 80th minute, and we had to dig deep. The hardest games and toughest places to play are the ones you want to be a part of.”