While it would be disingenuous to suggest Ireland hadn’t seriously upped their game in their second test with the All Blacks last weekend after tasting defeat in the opening match of the series, New Zealand also underwent a significant change between the two fixtures.
Sam Whitelock, the second-most experienced All Black of all time, took a knock to the head in the 42-19 victory in Auckland and had to sit out the rematch in Dunedin, forcing a reshuffle of the pack.
With Scott Barrett shifting from the blindside flank to the second row and Dalton Papalii coming into the run-on side to fill the gap left in the No 6 jersey, New Zealand lost some serious size in their pack – not to mention one of the top locks from the past decade.
The cards did not fall the home team’s way throughout the match and Ireland emerged victorious at the final whistle, scoring a first-ever win against the All Blacks in NZ, with the series now culminating in a decider at Sky Stadium on Saturday.
Thankfully for the All Blacks, Whitelock will be back on deck this weekend and has been named to start in the No 5 jersey alongside Brodie Retallick, while Barrett will again pack down on the blindside flank.
Despite Whitelock’s quick return to the field, however, every precaution was taken following the knock he suffered at Eden Park.
“I knew I wasn’t quite right (after the game),” Whitelock told media this week. “Had concussion or head knock symptoms, but same as always, was never put under any pressure to be ready for that next week.
“The first couple of days I was a little bit dodgy but with the new protocols, you’ve kind of got to do nothing for those first couple of days, which is exactly what I needed. And then after that, there was a whole lot of stages and steps which I won’t bore you with but probably two or three days and then as I started to get back to light training and gym and that sort of stuff, felt pretty good and here I am.”
For Whitelock, a man of 133 test matches, it was a difficult week – not necessarily because of the concussion symptoms, but because sitting on the sidelines is not something the 33-year-old is accustomed to during the test season.
“Pretty tough week last week, being in Dunedin, going through the protocols of being in camp but not being able to play or train,” he said. “It was a little bit different, especially going to the game in number ones.
“Definitely want to be out there playing but that was the role I had to do, I had to look after myself first and had a whole lot of things I had to do throughout that week and then this week to be available to play for this one.
“I think every test match you’re not involved in is tough to watch. It’s something that you’d like to be out there and have an influence but for once, it was pretty similar to a fan. I didn’t have an opportunity to influence the game, whether that’s playing or being directly involved so it was definitely a different feeling for myself.”
Now, with the series on the line, Whitelock will set out to ensure the All Blacks don’t fall into the same traps as last week and reassert themselves as a formidable force on their home turf.
“Every test match is massive – I’m yet to play in an easy test match, regardless of who you’re playing or where it is in the season,” he said. “But this is the decider.
“It’s great to be a part of any test match but these are the ones… you want to be involved in because the pressure’s there and you get to find out how you are individually, under that pressure, but also as a team.”
Saturday’s match is set to kick off at 7:05pm NZT from Sky Stadium in Wellington.
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