TWO surprise selections in Steve Handen’s first All Blacks training squad, Luke Romano and Luke Whitelock, were on cloud nine at the Crusaders training in Christchurch on Monday.
The pair were still counting their lucky stars less than 24 hours after All Blacks manager Darren Shand texted the news of their inclusion in the 35-man wider training group for camps in Auckland and Wellington later this month.
Romano, in his second year of Super Rugby with the Crusaders, had been tipped in some quarters after Hansen gave him a recent tick of approval, but 21-year-old Whitelock was a bolter.
The youngest of the four brothers in the Crusaders squad, Whitelock has started only twice for them this season, once on the blindside flank and at No.8 in the shock loss to the Melbourne Rebels last Saturday.
In all, he has made seven appearances.
However, his captaincy potential and playing ability were recognised last year when he led New Zealand to a fourth consecutive junior world championship in Italy, also making the shortlist for the IRB’s junior player of the year.
Whitelock, whose brothers George and Sam have both played for the All Blacks, says he’s unsure whether Hansen has chosen him to play a specialist loose forward role or as someone who could cover all three position.
“It’s a great opportunity for me and it’s about how I present myself,” he said.
“I’ll keep pushing from the bottom and really soak up as much as I can.”
Nelson-born Romano, 26, had never been picked in an academy or represented New Zealand at junior level, but repeatedly stood out for his High School Old Boys club before achieving Canterbury honours in 2009.
Canterbury coach Rob Penney introduced Romano to lifting weights to improve his physique and strength, and he progressed to Super Rugby selection in 2011 and the All Blacks squad this year.
Romano has added about 10kg to his weight since his amateur days and now stands at a powerful 116kg, and says his recognition gives hope to aspiring club players.
“I guess a lot of people may give away their dream once they’ve reached 23 or 24 and haven’t been in academies and such,” he said.
“Hopefully this might encourage those players to keep pursuing their dream.”