Rugby: All Blacks icon Sam Whitelock announces retirement, ends comeback speculation

All Blacks icon Sam Whitelock has ended speculation over a possible international comeback by announcing his retirement from all rugby after his current stint with French club Pau.

Whitelock, 35, stepped away from the national team after last year's Rugby World Cup in France, surpassing former captain Richie McCaw as the most-capped All Black with 153 test appearances and becoming the second male player to surpass 150, after Wales legend Alun Wyn Jones.

He and longtime second-row ally Brodie Retallick had also set the standard as the game's most prolific locking combination.

During the World Cup quarter-final win over Ireland, Whitelock sealed his legendary status, after his team survived 23 phases of attack on their goal-line, with the lock stealing the turnover that ended the game and Irish hopes of advancing to their first semi-final.

Whitelock signed a contract to play at Pau with younger brother Luke, but recent reports suggested he was considering a return to the NZ team, after approaches from new coach and former Crusaders mentor Scott Robertson.

This announcement effectively quashes that possibility.

"I’ve been having a few conversations with my wife Hannah and the kids around what the future looks like for us, and it’s time to finish the playing chapter of rugby," said Whitelock.

“I think, if you talk to anyone who has played for a long time, that desire never leaves, it's just that stage of life when you move on.

"Its not a decision that we have come to lightly, but it's the right thing for myself, and it's the right thing for my wife and our three kids - Fred, Iris and Penelope."

The French Top 14 final is scheduled for June 29 (NZ time), with the top six teams qualifying for playoffs. Whitelock's Pau (also known as Section Paloise) currently sit just outside qualification in seventh, winning just three of their last 10 games.

Sam Whitelock and Scott Robertson celebrate their last Super Rugby title together.
Sam Whitelock and Scott Robertson celebrate their last Super Rugby title together. Photo credit: Photosport

He was one of several senior All Blacks to move offshore or retire after the World Cup, including Retallick, halfback Aaron Smith, first-five Richie Mo'unga and hooker Dane Coles, with captain Sam Cane, first-five Beauden Barrett and World Rugby Player of the Year Ardie Savea also on sabbatical in Japan.

 "Sam is an immortal of our incredible game," said Robertson. "First and foremost, he is a quality person, a great husband and father, who has a special ability to build deep connections with people from all walks of life.  

"In terms of his rugby, Sam's impact has been immense, both mentally and physically, over four World Cup cycles. He is a winner, who rose to any occasion, as his competitive spirit drove him to the highest level of performance.

"Sam will stand with the greats of our game."

Whitelock's absence has also been a significant loss to the Super Rugby Pacific champion Crusaders, who have won a title in each of the last seven years, but achieved their first win of the season last weekend, after a 0-5 start to their campaign under new coach Rob Penney.