Eleven months ago Luke Whitelock became the latest New Zealand Under 20 captain to lift the coveted IRB Junior World Championship trophy after the Baby Blacks battled past England 33-22 in the final in Italy.
Fast forward to the present day and Whitelock, the youngest of four brothers to play for the Crusaders in Super Rugby, has just finished his second training camp with the All Blacks as they prepare for their first series under new head coach Steve Hansen.
Whitelock was just one of six members of that 2011 squad to earn a call up by Hansen, the others being fellow forwards Brodie Retallick, Ben Tameifuna, Brad Shields and Sam Cane along with fly half Beauden Barrett, the scorer of the decisive try in the 2011 final.
Taking their place alongside many of the Rugby World Cup 2011 winning squad is a quick progression, but when Total Rugby Radio caught up with Whitelock earlier this month he wasn’t surprised his JWC 2011 teammates were standing out in Super Rugby this year.
“There are some great players who are playing in there and it is great to see them doing well in the competition as well,” admitted Whitelock, who has made his Super Rugby debut this season in the Crusaders back row.
“Some of them are having some big contributions to some of the teams which is great to see but it just goes to show the calibre of the tournament itself and the players playing in it and how it can happen relatively quickly or it may take a few years ... players will get there in one way or the other.
Learning from the best
“This year has been good (for me) in terms I’ve been lucky enough to be picked for the Crusaders squad and had some games for them, I had one start against the Cheetahs and had a bit of time off the bench, but being part of the whole set up around 10 or 11 All Blacks in the team and obviously the World Cup winning captain.
“You can just go through a lot of players, expertise in their positions, and being around Kieran Read and the other loose forwards, just learning as much as I can off them and you can test yourself against them and where the pinnacle of world rugby is.
“I have really enjoyed it and just need to know where the bar is and try and get to it and get above it and keep pushing.”
Whitelock had already been described as a future All Black captain before getting his hands on the distinctive JWC trophy for a second time, but while it is his “top goal” to be an All Black like his brothers Sam and George, he isn’t getting carried away by such talk or his nomination for the IRB Junior Player of the Year accolade in 2011.
“There were a lot of great players in the tournament and a lot of great players should or could have been nominated for that award. I just think it was a great team, if you are going to win it is not just going to be down to one or two players, it will be a whole team.”
The recognition, though, did mean he was invited to the Rugby World Cup 2011 Final along with the other IRB Awards nominees and was in the Eden Park stands as his brother Sam, himself a JWC winner in 2008, helped New Zealand lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
“I guess it showed me the big time and how much closer it is at the top level, but it was quite special for me watching my brother playing in it and relating to what he may have felt, but it was on a much larger scale.
“It was pretty special for the country and being able to see that and watch that was great.
“Just growing up with him, playing in the back yard or doing various things together and then seeing him out on the field, it is quite special. I guess seeing what he achieves or experiences and occasions he has been in, it is something I also personally want to experience and be a part of ... it is pretty inspiring.”
So to, is New Zealand’s record at age grade level in recent years, the Baby Blacks having won all four Junior World Championships to date, as well as the last IRB Under 19 World Championship in 2007. The pressure to continue this success, must then be huge.
“I think generally New Zealand have good players and they play very well at the tournaments, the style they play and the desire they want to win. They are not there to compete, they are there to take it out.
“I think they develop well over the tournaments, but the players in that whole set up have done well and it has paid off the last four years.
“I guess there is that sort of unspoken about pressure that because the other teams have done well there is an expectation to do well as well.
“There is a bit of pressure but every team is new in the sense that every year it is a totally different bunch of boys and each one is sort of unique in its own way so each one wants to make their own make their own mark and make the best of the opportunity.
“It was a great occasion in Italy. I really enjoyed the country and the tournament and how we obviously won the tournament, it was great to just top it off really.
“The first year in Argentina was my first taste of the tournament and it was an amazing thing to be a part of and the bunch of guys coming through.
“Italy was a little bit extra special being able to raise the trophy and being able to back it up again was something that was pretty special I thought.”
Only time will tell if the class of 2012 will be able to preserve New Zealand’s perfect record on the Junior World Championship stage.