Sam Whitelock: ‘Twickenham still feels like it has a bit of extra spice’

There’s an old cigar in Caroline and Braeden Whitelock’s house, wrapped up somewhere safe in a drawer. Their son, Sam, can still remember the way it smelled to him when he was a kid. It was given to his grandad, Nelson Dalzell, as a reward for his man-of-the match performance when the All Blacks beat England 5-0 at Twickenham in 1954. Dalzell scored the only try, when he charged over England wing Ted Woodward. “We didn’t have a lot of stuff from grandad’s playing days,” says Whitelock – the jerseys were all thrown out after Sam’s uncle wore them thin – “but that cigar’s still at home. Mum and Dad always said they would smoke it if one of us became an All Black, but thankfully they never did.”

They had plenty of chances. Sam’s older brother, George, was capped in 2009, and so was his younger brother Luke, in 2013; the fourth, Adam has played for the national sevens side. Sam’s gone on to outstrip all of them, and almost everyone else. He has 142 caps now. Chances are that by this time next year he will be the most-capped All Black in history.

After all these years, Twickenham, and Tests against England, still feel special to him. “I definitely remember dreaming about it when I was young, taking out that cigar, smelling it, and thinking to myself ‘how cool would it be to be able to play at Twickenham and score the winning try?’ For me the place still feels like it has a bit of extra spice about it because of that family history.” It’s been a while since he has felt it. The All Blacks have only played one Test at Twickenham since the 2015 World Cup, but they have two lined up before the World Cup, one against England this Saturday when he will captain the team, and another against South Africa in August.

That match against the Springboks is being billed as a World Cup warm-up. Whitelock snorts at the idea the two teams could ever play in anything so tepid. “That’s the worst word for it,” he says. “I’m not sure who came up with it, but I think it will be cut pretty quick.” New Zealand’s matches against South Africa only go one way. “I’ve played against South Africa a lot of times, and I’ve never had an easy game against them, regardless of the scoreline, it’s always been hard, and it’s always been physical.” You could never call one of their Tests a warm-up, he says, “because there’s so much history between the sides” the players want to give it everything.

Just like with England. He remembers his parents shaking him awake in the middle of the night to watch the All Blacks win at Old Trafford in 1997, when Norm Hewitt and Richard Cockerill squared off during the haka. “Some of my fondest memories of growing up are sitting on the couch, half-asleep but still totally engrossed in those games, they were always such tight, hard encounters.” He has three children himself now, all under five. “My kids are starting to experience that part of a Kiwi upbringing now, and it’s so cool to see the pride they take in the All Blacks, and the excitement they feel about who we are playing.”

He still takes the cigar out to show them when they are at their grandparents’ house. Nelson Dalzell died when Sam was only six months old, “but a lot of those stories have been passed on to me from other people I’ve met who played alongside or against him.” On that 1953-54 tour, Dalzell’s teammates nicknamed him ‘Dad’ because he was one of the older players in the squad. It’s a role Sam’s taken on himself. It is his job to help shepherd the younger players into the team, to teach them what it means to be an All Black, just like it used to be Kieran Read’s, and Richie McCaw’s, before him.

“The easiest way to do it is to tell stories,” he says, “that’s how we pass on knowledge.” We talk about the last time England played the All Blacks, in Yokohama in 2019, in the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup. It was the first time Whitelock had ever lost a World Cup match. “The one thing that popped in my mind in 2019 was a moment from after we won the 2011 final,” he says, “I was sitting in the shed with Owen Franks, and we were the two babies of the team, and Andrew Hore was sitting there with a beer in his hand, like always. He had this big smile on his face, and he said ‘you guys don’t know what you’ve done’. And we said what do you mean?

Hore talked them through how it felt to lose in 2007, when they were beaten by France in the quarter-finals. Whitelock listened, but it was only in 2019 that he really began to understand what Hore was talking about. “Now it’s about making sure that, as a senior player, I am passing on that knowledge, so that the team doesn’t have to lose another World Cup to learn some of those experiences.”

The All Blacks have already been beaten twice by Ireland, and once each by Argentina and South Africa. One more defeat, and this will be their worst year since the 1990s. “It’s been an interesting year, and a challenging year, but it’s been a very enjoyable year at the same time, because we have stayed tight as a group, and worked through some of the things we knew we weren’t doing well enough. We’re striving to be better, and I’m really happy with some of the things we have got better at. But you never actually arrive at the destination, we’re all always chasing that perfect game, whether it’s individually, or as a team. None of us have ever been there and I don’t think we ever will. It’s an unrealistic goal, but we keep striving towards it.” That’s the way it was in his grandad’s day, and still will be after his grandchildren’s too.