Rugby World Cup: Sam Whitelock leaves darkened All Blacks jersey behind as he signs off on historic test career

After a long flight from Europe, Sam Whitelock sports a freshly shaven face as he makes his way to greet media at Auckland International Airport.

But the departing All Blacks veteran insists there's nothing even remotely symbolic about the removal of his trademark beard.

"Had a few greys in so time to come off," Whitelock joked. "The kids were starting to pull at it too... I think my wife's pretty happy that it's gone."

And almost as swiftly as those whiskers disappeared came the end of his historic All Blacks tenure at Stade de France on Sunday (NZ time), where he played the last of his recordbreaking 153-test career in the World Cup final defeat to the Springboks. 

"I don’t think it will properly sink in until the All Blacks are renamed and they actually run out there and play," he admitted.

"It's a bit of a weird one at the moment saying goodbye to all of the guys as we were getting our bags. Some guys we've played 10 or 12 years with - and against - and it's kind of the handshake and a bit of a cuddle. That awkward one where it's like 'keep in touch and I'll see you when I see you' kind of thing."

Sam Whitelock with his children after the World Cup final.
Sam Whitelock with his children after the World Cup final. Photo credit: Getty Images

While he came up agonisingly short of another unique slice of history in becoming the first player to ever win three Webb Ellis Cups, Whitelock is adamant there's not even the faintest hint of regret, as he puts a full stop on his tenure as one of the greatest players to ever wear a black jersey.

As he explains, every All Black seeks to metaphorically 'blacken' that jersey after wearing it, and there's no doubt the Palmerston North product has left it the darkest shade on the spectrum. 

"When I was first asked to come in and be part of the team, the coaches and players talked around how the jersey is never yours and when you are finished – whether it's one test or you're lucky to play more - you’ve always got to leave it in a better spot, so hopefully I've done that.

"I've had some cool messages over the last couple of weeks talking around darkening our jersey - we want it to be be as black as possible.

"From the final whistle until now – different stages you're going through, different emotions, connecting with different people.

"There's been quite a bit of reminiscing going on – telling cool stories about some of the times we've had over the last couple months and also over people's careers." 

There will only be time for a brief NZ respite for Whitelock, who'll only get a small taste of the Kiwi summer before he jetting straight back to Europe, where he'll begin his preparations for the upcoming Top 14 season in France with his new club Pau.

And near the top of his to do list – right underneath quality family time – will be a visit to his beloved longtime coach Ian Foster's house, whose family he's formed a tight bond with over the past 12 years, to savour some of the outgoing coach's renowned Italian cuisine.

"Foz has spent a bit of time in Italy – loves connecting around food and does it really well, so I'm sure there'll be a bbq or a pizza/pasta at some stage.

"I've got to know, not only him, but his family really well. We'll spend more time catching over the next few years talking about some of the cool things we've achieved and looking forward to carrying on that relationship as life unfolds." 

Rugby World Cup: Sam Whitelock leaves darkened All Blacks jersey behind as he signs off on historic test career