All Blacks v Ireland: Veteran lock Sam Whitelock challenges senior players to step up after COVID-19 outbreak

All Blacks veteran Sam Whitelock has challenged his teammates to fill the void left by the COVID-striken coaching staff before the first test against Ireland on Saturday.

In less-than-ideal preparation for the series opener, head coach Ian Foster, and assistants John Plumtree and Scott McLeod have returned positive tests, as well as midfield players David Havili and Jack Goodhue.

That leaves just Brad Mooar and Greg Feek to assume their coaching roles this week, with former Ireland coach and now All Blacks selector Joe Schmidt drafted in to help out.

Whitelock is confident the coaches and players are well prepared to cope with the obstacles and has urged the experienced players within the squad to rise to the challenge.

"I know the management and coaching team had a number of different 'what ifs' and scenarios planned, if this did happen," he said. "The leadership group have been together for a couple of campaigns now. 

"We know each other pretty well, so it's actually not doing too much different, it's just maybe everyone taking a step up in the right areas.

"We always lead in different ways and people have different personality traits. Some people like to voice what's needed, some like to go out there and do it. 

"We've got to carry on doing that, but actually making sure we're right across the whole board, because we don't have our normal coaches there, watching and helping out.

"It's actually a really cool challenge and something I'm looking forward to. It's different, but how awesome we get to have a week in here - it's different and exciting."

COVID-19 disruptions are nothing new to the players, with the past three seasons of Super Rugby operating amid outbreaks, lockdowns and restrictions.

Whitelock is actually relieved the setback has come so early in the international season and believes his teammates have learned from previous experiences how best to deal with the adversity.

The All Blacks have been boosted by the arrival of former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt into camp before Saturday's first test.
The All Blacks have been boosted by the arrival of former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt into camp before Saturday's first test. Photo credit: Getty Images

"If anything, for a player, it's actually quite nice to happen early and make us take the lead, which we normally want to do," he said. "If anything, it means we got to do that a day earlier than we normally would.

"It's something the players have dealt with over the last six months with our own Super sides, it's something that we've been through before. 

"Every team dealt with it differently, but everyone knew 'what have I got to worry about here? It's actually myself and going out and getting the learnings that you need'. 

"Upskilling yourself, so that when you do get out on the field, you can play the way you want to play.

"It's actually looking forward, it's then easier to come back and ask 'what do I need to nail today?'."

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