WELLINGTON - Veteran lock Sam Whitelock has signed a new four-year contract with New Zealand Rugby, with a clause which will allow him to play for a season in Japan while still being selected for the All Blacks.
The deal marks a departure from New Zealand’s long-standing policy of not selecting overseas-based players for the All Blacks, reflecting the fact New Zealand is finding it increasingly difficult to retain top players in the face of huge offers from clubs in Europe and Japan.
“We know our players have a number of choices to make when it comes to where they play their rugby and we have to be flexible when it comes to renegotiating with our leading players, and that’s what we have done with Sam,” New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said.
Tew said Whitelock, a veteran of 108 tests, will miss the 2020 Super Rugby season while playing in Japan’s Top 14 competition. He will still be considered for All Blacks selection during that time.
“He’ll have a short break away with his young family and experience a different culture before returning to New Zealand,” Tew said. “We think having a short playing stint in Japan as part of a long-term, four-year commitment is a win-win for him and us.”
In a statement, New Zealand Rugby said the decision to grant Whitelock special dispensation to play overseas while remaining a candidate for All Blacks selection was “made on the basis of his long-standing and outstanding service to New Zealand Rugby and the fact he had signed a four-year deal.”
It said Whitelock, who had already signed to 2020, had decided to sign a longer deal early and has exit clauses in his contract. Those clauses will likely allow him to leave within the new contract term.
Whitelock thanked New Zealand Rugby and his Crusaders Super Rugby team for supporting his decision to play overseas for a year.
“Ultimately, this decision allows me to take some time with my family to experience a new rugby environment in Japan before coming back refreshed and ready for the remainder of 2020 and beyond,” he said. “I’m pleased there is clarity around my playing future so I can focus on the remainder of this 2019 season with the Crusaders.”