New Zealanders country-wide held their breath as Brodie Retallick was escorted from the field in Saturday’s match between the All Blacks and the Springboks.
Retallick, who was on the receiving end of a reckless-at-best ruck clear-out from RG Snyman, had dislocated his shoulder. The big man is probably one of the most resilient in the country – it takes a huge hit to keep Retallick down.
Shoulder dislocation normally require 12 to 16 weeks of rehabilitation. Irish centre Robbie Henshaw bucked the trend and was back playing 10 weeks after suffering his own dislocation against Italy in last year’s Six Nations.
Coach Steve Hansen has revealed on Sunday that shoulder scans show no major damage to Retallick – which means the Chiefs co-captain could be back a little sooner than expected.
Still, the Rugby World Cup kicks off on September 20 – that’s less than eight weeks away. Even in a best-case scenario, it would be a major surprise if Retallick was back and ready for the All Blacks’ rematch with the Springboks in Yokohama on September 21.
A quite year for Brodie
Retallick has already spent plenty of time on the side-lines in 2019. Ten weeks into the Chiefs’ Super Rugby campaign, Retallick tore a tendon in his wrist against the Blues. He didn’t take the field again until the final round of the regular season.
The former World Rugby Player of the Year has now managed just four matches since April 13 – and it’s shown. Whilst he hasn’t been putting in awfully poor performances since his return, Retallick certainly hasn’t looked like the best second-rower in the world. Even top rugby players can’t be expected to find top gear straight away, which is why Retallick’s latest injury will be a major concern for Hansen.
Even if Retallick is fit for the World Cup, his injury will force the selectors’ hands when it comes to the composition of the squad.
The All Blacks coaches will cut the current squad down from 39 players to 34 on Wednesday. Retallick won’t be taking up one of those spots, thanks to his injury. Once the Bledisloe series comes to an end, the squad will be reduced further down to 31. This selection will take on Tonga on September 7 then travel to Japan for the World Cup.
World Cup squad make-up crucial
The selectors have probably been weighing up for some time whether they need to take three or four second-rowers to the World Cup. In 2015 they opted for the former, with just Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano selected. Kieran Read and Victor Vito were considered the locking back-up in the squad – and that’s a tactic that the All Blacks may have opted for this year, too.
Retallick, Whitelock and Scott Barrett are the three premier locks in New Zealand – head and shoulders above the competition. The next cab off the ranks is Patrick Tuipulotu, who has 22 caps to his name. Luke Romano is the only other specialist lock in the country who has actually been capped for the All Blacks but he’s fallen down the pecking order considerably since his last test in 2017.
Jackson Hemopo made his international debut against France last year and now has four caps to his name. He’s been used both in the second row and on the blindside flank and was listed as a ‘utility forward’ when the All Blacks named their first squad of the year.
Were Retallick, Whitelock and Barrett all fit, the All Blacks would be seriously considering just travelling to Japan with those three men as their locking options. For the lesser matches, Read or someone like Shannon Frizell could provide second row cover off the bench, if need be. Hemopo’s chances of travelling would also be quite high, given his utility value.
If there were a fourth lock putting his hand up for selection then perhaps the All Blacks would opt for four specialists (as was the case in 2007 and 2011) – but that isn’t the case this year.
Plenty of options – few obvious ones
Tuipulotu has been given multiple opportunities to push his case at the top level but the Blues captain has never really taken his chances. Tuipulotu needed to make a statement in last weekend’s game to show that he deserved to go to the World Cup – but that didn’t happen. Vaea Fifita was selected to cover lock against the Springboks – which seems to indicate that Tuipulotu wasn’t at the level that the All Blacks needed from him.
Retallick’s injury could change everything.
If Retallick isn’t fit for the start of the World Cup then the selectors will likely have to take four specialists to the flagship tournament – including Retallick. The All Blacks won’t be able to go into their first match of the competition against the Springboks without specialist locking cover, which could mean Tuipulotu retains his space in the squad, despite his lack of impact.
If, as is entirely possible, Retallick is invalidated for the whole World Cup, then the All Blacks may end up scraping the barrel for cover. You would have to think that Hemopo would be an automatic selection, but if the selectors want a strictly specialist lock then there are few options on the table.
Locking conundrum incoming
A number of promising second-rowers showed off their wares throughout the Super Rugby season, but none of them looked ready for test football. Pari Pari Parkinson shone out at times for the Highlanders but faltered as the season progressed while Mitchell Dunshea looks like a solid option out of the Crusaders. Perhaps next year they’ll appeal as options – but few New Zealanders would feel comfortable with either of those players locking a scrum in a World Cup knockout match.
Whatever the case, New Zealand will need cover in the second-row for the upcoming matches against Australia – which means at least one of Hemopo and Tuipulotu will be retained in the 34-man squad. Prior to Retallick’s injury all the money would have been on Tuipulotu to get the cut, but that may no longer be the case.
Perhaps Retallick will make a remarkable recovery in the coming months and be fit and ready come the World Cup. He is one the great physical specimens of the rugby world and he certainly has the desire and commitment to get himself fit. Still, a shoulder dislocation is no laughing matter. Whatever the outcome, we likely won’t know what to expect for some time now. In the meantime, Kiwis just have to sit and pray.
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