Sam Whitelock: Most capped All Black of all-time and his trophy ladened 17-year career

Jared Wright
All Blacks legend Sam Whitelock.

The legendary All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock has announced his retirement from professional rugby.

One of the greatest players to pull on an All Blacks jersey, Sam Whitelock, has announced his retirement from professional rugby.

Whitelock enjoyed a trophy-laden 17-year-long player career in New Zealand and will end his career in France with Top 14 club Pau.

With the legendary second-rower making his decision official, we look back at his magnificent career.

Early life, career and family

Samuel Lawrence Whitelock was born to parents Braeden and Caroline on October 12, 1998, in Palmerston North in the Manawatu District of New Zealand’s North Island.

Sam is the third born of the four Whitelock brothers, with brothers George and Luke representing the All Blacks and Adam the New Zealand Sevens.

Whitelock played 1st XV rugby for Fielding High School alongside fellow future All Black Aaron Smith.

He showed early signs of his potential representing New Zealand Schools in 2005 and 2006, and after high school, he moved to Christchurch to further his rugby career and study at Lincoln University.

There he was selected for the New Zealand U19 team and in 2008, he was called up to the New Zealand U20s for the inaugural Junior World Championship.

After helping the U20s lift the Junior World Championship in the tournament’s debut season, Whitelock made his provincial debut for Canterbury in the NPC and would go on to play 22 games in total for the side.

Rugby is certainly in the Whitelock blood as his grandfather Nelson Dalzell, great-uncle Allan Elsom and brothers George and Luke also played for New Zealand, while brother Adam represented the All Blacks Sevens, and father Braeden played for Manawatu.

New Zealand: Sam Whitelock’s insane family links to the All Blacks and sporting lineage

Crusaders and All Blacks debut

Whitelock made his Super Rugby debut for the Crusaders in 2010 and impressed enough during his first season to earn a maiden call-up to the All Blacks squad later that year.

He came off the bench on debut, replacing Brad Thorn in the Test match against Ireland in his hometown of New Plymouth, scoring twice off the bench in the 66-28 victory.

That cemented his place in the All Blacks squad as he would go on to earn a further 12 caps for his country that year.

By 2011, Whitelock had become a regular starter for the All Blacks and earned his place in the squad for New Zealand’s home Rugby World Cup, where he helped the side end their 24-year wait for a second World Cup triumph.

Second World Cup and partnering Brodie Retallick

While continuing to be a key cog in the Crusaders pack, Whitelock also thrived in the Test arena and became renowned for his terrific work rate and brilliance at lineout time.

In the first Test of 2012, following their success at the World Cup, Whitelock packed down alongside All Blacks debutant Brodie Retallick against Ireland at Eden Park.

It was the first time that the pair would combine in the second-row, a partnership that would feature in the black jersey a world record 64 times, surpassing the record of Springboks duo Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.

The partnership was an instant hit as the All Blacks surged to a 42-10 victory, and Retallick and Whitelock would combine throughout the World Cup cycle leading up to the tournament in England in 2015.

Now a more senior player in the All Blacks set-up, Whitelock played a crucial role in New Zealand’s run to defending their title. He again started the final as the All Blacks defeated the Wallabies 34-17 in London.

Super Rugby success, captaincy and 100th Test

By the time 2017 rolled around, Whitelock had already racked up two World Cup winner’s medals, won a Tri-Nations, four Rugby Championships and helped the All Blacks defend the Bledisloe Cup seven years in a row.

However, he had yet to win anything with the Crusaders – for whom he had notched up 100 appearances for the year prior – but that changed in 2017 when Scott Robertson arrived at the Canterbury-based outfit.

Whitelock was handed the captaincy under Robertson and led the side to their first Super Rugby title since 2008 as they defeated the Lions in the final. He would again skipper the side to their title defence the following year after leading his country for the first time in 2017.

The second-rower would start all three Test matches against the British and Irish Lions in 2017, with the series famously ending in a 1-all stalemate.

He first captained the All Blacks against Wales in Cardiff in 2017, leading his side to a 33-18 victory over the Welsh and would resume the captaincy in the 2018 three-Test series against France.

That Test match against Wales was made all the more special for Whitelock as he packed down against the Welsh alongside his brother Luke for the first time in an All Blacks jersey – the pair would play five Tests in total together.

After captaining the All Blacks to a 3-0 series victory over France, Whitelock entered the 2018 Rugby Championship with 99 Test matches under his belt.

And in the first game of the tournament, he became the youngest All Black to reach 100 Tests and the quickest in the world to achieve the milestone when he started the 38-13 victory over Australia.

When he notched up his 100th Test cap, Whitelock had only lost eight All Blacks matches and became the first player to play 100 internationals and lose less than 10 – a feat none of the previous seven All Black centurions had achieved, not even Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.

Third World Cup and continued Crusaders’ success

After an extended off-season, Whitelock returned to action for the Crusaders in 2019 in round six of the tournament. He resumed the captaincy and once again led the side to a third successive Super Rugby title.

In 2019, the lock also signed a contract extension through to the 2023 World Cup with NZ Rugby with a planned playing sabbatical in Japan after the 2019 World Cup.

Whitelock was included in the All Blacks’ 31-man squad for the 2019 World Cup in Japan and featured throughout the tournament. The All Blacks eventually finished in third place after a semi-final defeat to England.

His stint in Japan with Panasonic Wild Knights was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic but he returned to the Crusaders for the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition and while he didn’t captain the side, he played a crucial role in their success once again.

Final World Cup cycle

When Ian Foster named his first squad in 2020, Whitelock was the lone active New Zealander from the 2011 World Cup success.

He continued to be a regular starter for his country and captained the side a further eight times in 2021 when regular captain Sam Cane was injured.

2022 was another year of milestones for Whitelock, who surpassed Keven Mealamu’s tally of 132 Test caps to become the second most-capped All Black, only behind McCaw. He captained the All Blacks in their final match of the year against England at Twickenham, which also saw him and Retallick break Botha and Matfield’s record of Test starts together (64).

Whitelock showed no signs of ageing in 2022 and 2023, producing Player of the Match performances in the Crusaders’ successful Super Rugby final wins. He also earned a spot in World Rugby Men’s 15s Dream Team of the Year for 2022.

Ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Whitelock announced that he would be joining French Top 14 club Pau after the tournament, signing a one-year deal with an option of a second.

Final tournament and appearance

The veteran second-rower was named in the All Blacks squad for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, his fourth tournament, and was the sole survivor from the side that won the 2011 tournament.

Whitelock started the All Blacks’ opening game against France, where the side lost a pool stage match for the first time in their history. However, they bounced back to hammer Namibia 71-3 in a game where Whitelock equalled McCaw’s record of 148 Test matches.

Against Italy, he became the most capped All Blacks player when he came off the bench in New Zealand’s 96-17 win over Italy. In their final pool game against Uruguay, Whitelock became the first All Black to reach the 150 Test cap milestone as New Zealand cruised to a 73-0 victory.

Having helped the All Blacks qualify for the tournament’s knockout stages, Whitelock secured their place in the semi-finals when he came off the bench against Ireland and won a penalty that sealed a 28-24 victory.

He started the semi-final win over Argentina and then came off the bench in what proved to be his final international for New Zealand in the final, where the All Blacks were edged 12-11 by the Springboks.

Pau, rumours and retirement

Following the World Cup heartbreak, Whitelock made the move to France, where he linked up with his brother Luke at Pau.

He made his debut for the club in their Top 14 clash against Oyonnax on December 29.

In March 2024, reports emerged that new All Blacks head coach Robertson was eager for Whitelock to return to New Zealand and resume his playing career.

However, on April 2, the lock announced that he would not be returning to play in New Zealand as he will be bringing the curtain down on his illustrious 17-year-long career at the end of the 2023/24 season.

Whitelock retires as the second most capped men’s international of all-time with 153 Test caps and holds the record for the most World Cup caps (26).

One of the greatest players the game has seen, Whitelock was a crucial cog in the All Blacks pack for over a decade and retires with an incredible Test record of 153 games, 125 wins, 22 losses and six defeats.

READ MORE: The seven legendary All Blacks who have won 100 Test matches