Sam Whitelock is not the 'young boy' of the All Blacks squad any more. Liam Napier reports from Cardiff.
Sam Whitelock is edging closer to the back seat of the All Blacks bus.
Not so long ago, the gangly greenhorn struggled to keep weight on at Feilding High School.
Now, with 37 tests under his belt, Whitelock's seating allocation is symbolic of his growing seniority.
In the All Blacks, management take the front seats of the tour bus with newer players filtering behind them.
Whitelock is stationed in the middle, a place the rangy second-rower is familiar with at scrum time.
"I'm actually not the young boy any more. That's something new," he said, referring to 20-year-old openside flanker Sam Cane.
"I'm starting to get to the age now where I'm probably becoming a bit more of a man."
Whitelock's progression on the bus, for a bloke who turned 24 last month, is not something to be scoffed at given veterans like Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Dan Carter, Andrew Hore and Richie McCaw occupy the coveted back-row positions.
Heavy-drinking court sessions might now be outlawed but some traditions remain entrenched in the All Blacks.
As a cheeky rookie, Marc Ellis once made the fatal mistake of gunning for the back seat, only to be flattened by a coathanger in the years when Richard Loe took great pride in enforcing the strict seating-status rules - or so the story goes. Whitelock respects those traditions.
He was initially a tad dismissive, possibly wary, of the media but on this European tour he has revealed a sharp sense of humour and a new willingness to talk openly about his rugby - and budding Harley handle moustache.
This week, his new-found relaxed manner gave an insight into his off-field adjustments.
He's added nine kilograms of bulk in the past two years, to now tip the scales at 117kg.
"I've definitely put on a bit of size since then and trimmed up a bit as well. When I was younger, especially at school, I was a bit of a beanpole or a rake as I was called. I'm starting to maintain my weight a lot easier."
One of the more athletically gifted locks in world rugby, Whitelock was cut down to size by coach Steve Hansen early this year. There was no dancing around the subject; Whitelock was out of form and demotion was necessary to regain his spark.
"Honest feedback is great," Whitelock said.
He was dropped to the bench, where he started the first nine games of his test career, against the Pumas in Wellington.
Hansen's well-timed kick up the rear hit the spot - Whitelock dusted himself off and quickly returned to form. Since then, his nicely balanced partnership with Crusaders team-mate Luke Romano has started to flourish.
The fact Whitelock has started 10 of the other 11 tests this year shows his increasing importance.
It's only a matter of time before he joins the back-seat brigade.
Unlike Ellis, the first-choice lock won't be knocked back.
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