All Black lock Sam Whitelock likely out of remainder of Ireland series

Crusaders forward diagnosed with delayed onset concussion and faces 12-day stand down period

The All Blacks have suffered a significant blow for the remainder of the series against Ireland with the news that veteran lock Sam Whitelock has been sidelined for next Saturday’s Second Test and probably the finale in Wellington a week later as well.

Whitelock, who made his debut against Ireland in New Plymoutn in 2010 and last Saturday eclipsed Keven Mealamu as the All Blacks’ second most capped player of all time with 133, was diagnosed with delayed onset concussion, which under World Rugby’s new 12-day stand down protocols is now expected to rule him out for both remaining Tests.

Whitelock is the All Blacks’ primary lineout operator and caller. With Scott Barrett employed as a third lock in the backrow for the First Test, the home side effectively stole four of Ireland’s 17 throws and a fifth on the floor in last Saturday’s 42-19 win in Eden Park.

Furthermore in Whitelock’s absence the in form lock Tupou Vaa’i would have seemed the ideal foil for his Chiefs secondrow partner Brodie Retalick, but he is the latest All Black to test positive for Covid.

As a result the All Blacks management requested special dispensation from the New Zealand Rugby board to permit Patrick Tuipulotu be allowed join the squad. He has just returned from a six-month stint in Japan and in order to be eligible for the All Blacks squad ought to have played at least once at NPC level, but has only played one club match.

Tuipulotu doesn’t appear a likely option to start and hence the All Blacks may have revert Scott Barrett to lock, with either Akira Ioane, Blues captain Dalton Papalii or last week’s try-scoring debutant Pita Gus Sowakula at blindside.

“It’s not ideal,” admitted All Blacks captain Sam Cane of Whitelock’s enforced loss. “Sam was awesome in the weekend. He became the second most capped All Black of all time which is hugely impressive. We’ll no doubt miss his leadership and what he brings.

“Tupou had been playing well all Super Rugby and was hanging out for his opportunity so it’s a tough pill for him to swallow. We’ve got to the stage where anyone who hasn’t had it, it’s lurking and it’s going to strike soon and poor Tups had to get it this week.

“In terms of replacements it’s great to have a 40-odd test All Black in Patrick Tuipulotu to call in. He trained with us last week which was awesome so he’s up to speed and he’ll slip in pretty seamlessly.”

Cane confirmed that Retallick will assume responsibility for calling the All Blacks lineout.

“He did that for the majority of the Rugby Championship last year so he’s ready and looking forward to doing that. It’s crazy he’s played 90-odd tests and his locking partner has always been the one running the lineout. He’s done it at Super Rugby time and time again.

“Other than that it’ll be business as usual. It’s impressive the way it doesn’t fluster the boys, they just get on and know someone else will step up. That’s the way it is again.”

The All Blacks have also been boosted by the return of the Crusaders trio David Havili, Jack Goodhue and Will Jordan after testing positive for Covid last week. Jordan will almost certainly be restored to the back three, and quite possibly Havili at inside centre as well. Head coach Ian Foster and assistants John Plumtree and Scott McLeod, are also out of isolation and back on board, with scrum coach Greg Feek the only remaining absentee.

Even so, and even though the All Blacks outscored Ireland by six tries to three and effectively had the first Test won by half-time, Cane accepted that the game was more competitive than the result in dictated.

“We were lucky we managed to have a good period for the second period of the first half where we piled the points on but if you look at the rest of the test it was fairly even. We know they’ll lift from last week but we certainly need to be better. If we deliver what we did last week this week, I don’t think it’ll be good enough.

“It’s always energising highlighting areas we can be better and where we made some shifts. Under the roof in the middle of winter to be playing in perfect conditions that excites this team that wants to play fast and use our skills.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times