With the IRB Junior World Championship kicking off in Italy in a fortnight, we continue our build-up by highlighting some of the players who have graduated from the Under 20 tournament to make their mark in the Test arena.
Sam Whitelock remembers the warmth of the Welsh hospitality, a tournament that was a cultural melting pot of styles and the red-hot opposition the hosts provided in the semi-final.
But it was the ice baths that left perhaps the biggest impression on the All Blacks second row from his appearance at the IRB Junior World Championship in Wales in 2008.
“The biggest thing I learnt was to do with recovery,” Whitelock told Total Rugby Radio recently.
“Playing every four days against international sides is pretty demanding on the body, but also mentally it’s pretty demanding, so when you are sore and tired and sitting in the motel room with your feet up [you need to be] doing all the recovery things like ice baths.
“That [need to do recovery] was the main thing I learnt from that World Cup and I’ve tried to take it on to my rugby now and hopefully it is something I can keep doing in the future.”
The 22-year-old said playing against different styles of teams was also a great learning experience. Some sides loved scrummaging or had good lineouts, while others from the southern hemisphere liked to throw the ball around.
Indeed, the key to New Zealand’s success at the Junior World Championship – the Baby Blacks have won all three editions of the Under 20 tournament, in Wales, Japan and Argentina – has been due in large part to former coach Dave Rennie’s constant innovation and willingness to change the game plan in order to counter the opposition’s strengths.
“Because you are playing every four days, you have got to change, you have to have a deep squad and use every player, use everyone’s talent,” Whitelock said.
The 2008 tournament proved a significant stepping stone on a path that would rapidly lead him to All Blacks selection.
Barely a month after returning from the team’s triumph over England in the final in Cardiff, he was selected for Canterbury in the domestic Air New Zealand Cup.
“It was pretty special to go from one high to the next high so soon,” he said.
But Whitelock was to scale even greater heights in the next couple of years.
In 2010 he made his Super Rugby debut against the Highlanders and quickly impressed the national selectors, who drafted him into the senior team for the mid-year Tests and then the Tri Nations.
In a dream start to his senior international career, he came off the bench against Ireland to score two tries, and has since earned another 12 caps, becoming one of three players with JWC experience to have earned their senior stripes. The others were Zac Guildford in 2009, and Aaron Cruden, who made his debut in the same match as Whitelock.
“Having a grandfather [John] that played for the All Blacks and an older brother [George] as well, it was awesome to become part of New Zealand history,” Whitelock said.
“Pulling on the black jersey is something every New Zealander dreams of doing, and to do it at home and play really well in your first game, it’s pretty hard to describe really.”
The family dynasty looks set to continue well into the future. Younger brother Luke will be a key member of the New Zealand team contesting JWC 2011 in Italy, after which he will return to the fringes of a Crusaders squad that boasts a fourth brother, Adam, as well as George and Sam.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to do it with your brothers and have mates out there that you have been mates with since day one,” Whitelock said. “It’s pretty cool to share your experiences and travel with them around the world and spend time with people you grew up with.”
But Whitelock, who was also part of New Zealand’s IRB Under 19 World Championship-winning squad of 2007, said he would not need to give “level-headed” Luke, part of last year’s JWC winning squad, too much advice, other than to use the tournament as part of his wider rugby education.
He emphasised the need to stay fresh and not get too “caught up in the rugby thing”. The tournament offered players a great opportunity to see how other nations approached their rugby, meet players from other teams and make lasting friendships with team-mates who they might travel with in the future.
While Luke is trying to make it four straight JWC triumphs for New Zealand, Sam will be stepping up his campaign to play at Rugby World Cup 2011, which starts on 9 September.
But dreaming of glory in the final at Auckland’s Eden Park on 23 October will have to wait. Whitelock first has to overcome his injury concerns and reclaim his place in the Crusaders side for the climax of the Super Rugby season, then make the All Blacks team for the Tri Nations and the World Cup.
He hopes to be playing for Canterbury again within the next month.
“Winning the World Cup at home would be pretty special. There is a real buzz around. Everyone knows the World Cup is coming and the guys are getting more and more excited every week.”