Sam Whitelock is loving being the middle child again.
For most of this season he has been the senior statesman in the All Blacks second row, at 24-years-old a veritable veteran next to newcomers Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick.
So it's no surprise that the return of Ali Williams for the end of year tour has taken a little bit of the load off Whitelock's shoulders.
"It's great having Ali back in the side," Whitelock said this week. "Obviously I've played with him for a couple of years now and we're really getting to know each other really well which always helps.
"It's good having a couple of guys at the extremes. Ali's played 75 tests and the other guys are still quite fresh and new to it. Having that balance of experience and the excitement of youth is a good balance across the board."
Being the man in the middle is nothing new for Whitelock, the second youngest of four brothers.
And in hindsight, he has had to shoulder a big load this season with the All Blacks since Williams was ruled out of action following the second test against Ireland.
Already without Brad Thorn, Whitelock suddenly found two years into his test career he was the locking department's senior pro ahead of Romano and Retallick, both in their rookie seasons with the All Blacks.
Perhaps it took its toll because his form trailed off over the next three weeks to the point coach Steve Hansen dropped him for the test against Argentina in Wellington.
Whitelock responded with a string of big performances and has struck a confident and relaxed figure in Edinburgh.
He said the knowledge being shared among the four locks in the tour party is a major plus and a reflection of how the All Blacks operate as a squad.
"The guys really thrive off each other and use each other's strengths. All the players here do that really well," he said. "I think that's why they're here, because they love learning whether it's someone walking down the street or your head coach. The locks are no different.
"We're all keen to learn from each other and if you can pick up one thing every day that really helps. It doesn't matter who it's from."
It's unclear which locking duo will get the nod for the first test against Scotland with Hansen having chopped and changed his combination during the season.
Whitelock and Romano have been the most favoured combination, paired together five times this season. Retallick has partnered Whitelock four times and Romano once.
Whoever gets the nod on Monday, Whitelock says the All Blacks are expecting a physical battle at Murrayfield.
"It's a challenge and it's different again. The guys thrive on a different challenge and Scotland's pack is exactly that."
ALL BLACKS SECOND-ROW COMBINATIONS
v Ireland in Auckland, Whitelock-Retallick
v Ireland in Christchurch, Whitelock-Retallick
v Ireland in Hamilton, Whitelock-Romano
v Australia in Sydney, Whitelock-Romano
v Australia in Auckland Whitelock-Romano
v Argentina in Wellington, Retallick-Romano
v South Africa in Dunedin, Whitelock-Romano
v Argentina in La Plata, Whitelock-Romano
v South Africa in Johannesburg, Whitelock-Retallick
v Australia in Brisbane, Whitelock-Retallick
- © Fairfax NZ News
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