"It's an Absolute Privilege" - Sam Whitelock: All Blacks Legend Awaits his Final Ride as Barbarians take on Fiji at Twickenham - Ruck

“It’s an Absolute Privilege” – Sam Whitelock: All Blacks Legend Awaits his Final Ride as Barbarians take on Fiji at Twickenham

As a two-time Rugby World Cup winner and the most capped All Black in history, there are few accolades that have avoided Sam Whitelock throughout his decorated career. Add in seven Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders and eleven Rugby Championships with New Zealand, the legendary lock has truly left it all on the pitch, with a definite career of success that will long be remembered after his retirement.

One accomplishment that Whitelock has long sort after, is a run out in the famous black and white of the Barbarians. Having been previously denied the opportunity following the 2020 Covid Pandemic, the second row knew that time was running out to earn his stripes with the fabled invitational side. However, Whitelock’s wait to make his Barbarians debut comes to an end this Saturday, as the former All Black will captain the Baa-Baas, in their Killik Cup fixture against Fiji.

With Twickenham Stadium set to host the high octane clash between two of international rugby’s top entertainers, the stage is perfectly set for Whitelock’s last ride. Having confirmed his rugby retirement following the end of the 2023/24 Top 14 season with Pau, Whitelock called the opportunity to captain the Barbarians a ‘treat’, as he ticks the final task off his rugby bucket list, before hanging up his boots at the stadium known as ‘HQ’.

“It’s exactly that, I do like that word, it is a treat. It’s an absolute privilege to be to be asked to play for the Barbarians. Because it doesn’t matter how well you play, it’s by invitation. And there’s a lot of research that goes into not only what you are like as a player, but as a person. The thing I’ve definitely noticed, a couple of days I’ve been here is that there are some awesome rugby players, but they are just awesome people as well.”

“I think for myself, it is challenging, you know, you spend your whole career trying to get better and improve. And sometimes you need that break. And that’s probably the one of the main reasons I’ve never been able to pay for the Barbarians, I’ve always been really keen to do it.
And I know so many great players around the world have exactly the same.

“But you play 30 games a year, and all of a sudden to add another one on the end can be challenging, especially when you have little ones at home. That can be quite hard after four or five end of year tours or Northern tours.

“So I was meant to play in 2020, but Covid happened. So that all got put on hold as did the rest of world. So this was the next opportunity and I jumped at it straightaway. So, I’m really keen to carry on the week, and then give the opportunity to play with some guys that normally wouldn’t get opportunity to.”

“You just got to not overthink it, and if it ever come up, I knew that I was going to give it my best crack to be involved and I just had to hope. And luckily we’ve got here.”

One of the most enticing elements of watching the Barbarians from a supporter’s perspective, is being able to witness an all-star cast assemble for the exhibition contest. This fixture’s Barbarians side is amongst the strongest in recent memory, as Whitelock heads up a squad with a combined Test match cap tally of 968. The players also relish in the appeal of playing alongside long-term opponents, as the most unexpected partnerships are brought together for a run out in the iconic black and white.

“So, it’s pretty cool to get to know some guys who I have played so much rugby against. Someone like a Scotty Sio, for example, I think we were trying to work it out the other day, we think it might be 30 or 35 games played against each other. This is the first time we actually get to spend some time together and catch up, find out what his experiences have been through rugby and same for myself.

“So it’s actually really, really cool to have that opportunity. And the Barbarians is probably the only time you get to have that chance to do it. So yeah, pretty privileged to have the opportunity.”

“There’s a number of people that are standing out and been really good. I think the opportunity to as I said, like Scotty Sio, you know, played so many times against him, it’s actually nice to just kind of reminisce a little bit and talk about this game or that game and catch up. Especially when you have very good mutual friends and you’ve kind of always known each other but never really had a chance to have a couple of days and sit on the bus and talk about some of those things.”

As well as the Wallabies and Exeter Chiefs loosehead, Whitelock discussed some of the other Barbarians squad members that he has been getting to know throughout the past week. There are seven England capped players in Robbie Deans’ group, with Whitelock especially enjoying the company of scrum half duo Ben Youngs and Danny Care.

Youngs was sat on a nearby table whilst Whitelock spoke to the reporting media, and the former All Black spared no expense in taking a few friendly shots at the Leicester halfback. As the jokes were all in good taste, it’s evident to see that the famous social side of the Barbarians is living up to the expectations.

“The English halfbacks have got plenty of cheek. So it’s good to know that halfbacks all around the world are exactly the same. It’s quite nice not to be the oldest in the team as well!”

Two of Sam’s brothers, Luke and George Whitelock, had both previously played for the Barbarians and also enjoyed the club’s social environment. Now it is the time for the most capped All Black to make his mark, and round of his 16-year playing career with an appearence in black and white. Whitelock admitted how having his brothers play for the club previously has helped with his preparations, as he went into the week-long crammed camp with an idea of what to expect both on and off the pitch.

‘The cool thing is for myself, I’ve had two brothers that have played for the Barbarians. So I didn’t walk in here completely cold, I had a bit of an understanding of what is expected, what does a normal week look like. But as always, you have to give back, you cannot just take from something. The Barbarians have had some amazing performances against all the top tier sides around the world and performed on the highest stages.

“So even though there is that social element, we have to uphold the standards that we personally set as rugby players, but also the team expects. I know some of the flair and trying things is a big part of the Barbarians, but the reality for myself is, I have to play as well as I can. Then, that allows people to have space and time to potentially try something different.”

The head coach of the Barbarians for the upcoming Twickenham showpiece is Robbie Deans, and Whitelock has been enjoying the opportunity to play under his guidance once again. Whitelock and Deans’ paths did not cross in New Zealand, as the coach departed the Crusaders the season prior to Whitelock’s breakthrough. Instead, the pair enjoyed a brief stint together in Japan, yet Whitelock’s run with the Panasonic Wild Knights was cut short due to the global pandemic lockdown.

“I never got the privilege to be coached by Robbie, when I was in Christchurch. So when I arrived, he then left. So I kind of got a little taste and I got a lot of the stories from the senior players around what Robbie did and how he operated. Then I went to Japan and I think we played five or six games before Covid happened. We we’re at Panasonic together and I loved just catching up with a coach that had done so much in the world game, the New Zealand game.

“He’s coached the All Blacks and the Wallabies to really high levels. So having that as a player, a bouncing board, challenge yourself and Robbie is always great at getting the best out of people. And you can see it this week. He’s not saying a lot. But what he does say everyone stops and listens. It’s cool to have a man of his caliber here.

“Penny his wife is awesome, too. My wife, Hannah, and the kids will catch up with Penny when they get here from France. So it’s going to be a nice a reunion for everyone involved.”

Deans has brought an assortment of top players from the Wild Knights into the Barbarians squad, with a total of five players representing the Japan Rugby League One franchise. Jack Cornelson, Lachlan Boshier, Craig Millar and Liam Mitchell join the fray, yet Whitelock is most excited for his co-retirement send off alongside Japanese rugby legend Shota Horie, whom he began his career alongside nearly two decades ago.

“So I played with those guys a few years ago, but I also have a relationship with a couple of them beforehand. So Shota (Horie) was in the Canterbury Academy with me for about a year. Craig Millar, I played against him when he was at the Highlanders.

“So it’s a great connection there. It’s good to have the opportunity to catch up with people again, even though you know might not have seen them for four or five years. An opportunity like the Baa-Baas it doesn’t take long to catch up. Those friendships and those relationships take off straightaway.”

With strong representation from the Japan Rugby League One set to light up Twickenham, the fixture doubles up as an advert for some of the league’s top talents, just a matter of hours after England would have battled Japan in Tokyo. After the Rugby World Cup Final defeat to the Springboks, a total of 10 All Blacks departed New Zealand for pastures new in Japan, whilst Whitelock and exhilarating wing Leicester Fainga’anuku departed for France, and signed with Pau and Toulon respectively.

With the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Ardie Savea and Beauden Barrett all opting to ply their trade in the Far East instead of on home soil, questions are being raised around the appeal of a Super Rugby club career and the attraction of the iconic black jersey. New Zealand Rugby is currently in the mix of a player dispute, and Whitelock gave his reserved account of the ongoing difficulties that are hindering the rugby unity of his homeland.

“So, the main thing for the game in New Zealand and anywhere anywhere else is getting the alignment of what we’re actually trying to do and how we’re trying to do it at the moment. We’ve got people pulling it in all different directions, and it’s not good for the game.

“So, I know that there’ll be some great solutions going forward. And I’m not too interested in the problems because I know if we actually focus on the right things, and that’s being the solutions, it’ll actually come out where it needs to be.”

Regardless of how the NZR dispute is settled in the coming weeks, the All Blacks will have to organise themselves internally for a two-match series against England. Scott Robertson will be at the helm of the All Blacks for the first time, as his side take on Steve Borthwick’s men in Dunedin (July 7th) and Auckland (July 14th). Whitelock gave his thoughts on his former Crusaders coach known as ‘Razor’, in what will be a ‘massive first test’, against their old Northern Hemisphere rivals next month.

“There are a couple of key things that he’s done very well. It’s going to be a massive first Test for him. Obviously playing at home is always very special, but for Razor, and his new team, his new coaches and management, etc, the first one is always the hardest one. I know the excitement levels will be there, they’ll be chomping at the bit to get your hands on the team and the players.

“If anything, it’s the hardest thing because you’ve got to wait and you’ve got to actually let the players recover, because some of them will be coming out of the (Super Rugby) final.”

“I don’t know how many times I’ve played England, but the rivalry is always there. And I think the history side of it, rugby being born here and picking the ball up with (William Web) Ellis running, all those things. So, that’s something that you probably understand a little bit more when you’re here, in England playing.”

“Playing at Twickenham and the history behind it, for myself have a bit of family history there too. So that was always a little bit more special, understanding what it was and how it unfolded. So the rivalry is has been open, and it’s been there the whole time I’ve been a player, and I’m sure it’ll be there going forward. You look back at some of the tight ones, the tough ones, coming off the last time we played it was a draw. So the rivalry is there, and it’s going to be around for a long time from what I can see.”

The Barbarians take on Fiji this Saturday, apart of a massive double-header of rugby at Twickenham. Wales and South Africa will go head-to-head to ignite this afternoon’s action, with the Springboks kicking off against Warren Gatland’s side at 2pm. The Baa-Baas and Flying Fijians will then take centre stage, with that match kicking off at 5:15pm.