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All Blacks still waiting to unleash 'young Brodie Retallick'

By Tom Vinicombe
Ardie Savea, Tupou Vaa’i and Patrick Tuipulotu of the All Blacks sing the New Zealand national anthem during the Bledisloe Cup match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australian Wallabies at Eden Park on October 18, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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The All Blacks won’t be rushed into selecting 21-year-old locking sensation Tupou Vaa’i to run out against the Wallabies this weekend – but forwards coach John Plumtree has suggested that the second-rower has a massive future in the black jersey.

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Vaa’i, who made his test debut last year after a run of injuries to more experienced options ahead of him in the queue, is yet to have an opportunity to don the black jersey in 2021. The young Chief was the sole member of the All Blacks’ July squad to not accrue any minutes against Tonga or Fiji, while the selectors opted for close to a first-choice lineup in both their Bledisloe clashes against the Wallabies.

With Sam Whitelock remaining in New Zealand while the rest of the team travelled to Australia for the final Bledisloe Cup match in Perth, Vaa’i is now one of just four second-rowers in the squad.

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Ahead of him, however, is the experienced trio of Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu – all three of who are also in need of some minutes under the belt, given the relative disruptions of recent weeks, and the understandable preference for the All Blacks to field interim captain Whitelock in the second row in all but one match this year.

With Whitelock out of action this weekend, as well as regular halves pairing Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga, the All Blacks will be bolstering new captain Ardie Savea with as many experienced players around him as possible, and that doesn’t bode well for Vaa’i.

But, while the 21-year-old may not have the opportunity to run out against the Wallabies on Sunday, All Blacks forward coach Plumtree is confident that Vaa’i will still have a big role to play on this epic 10-game tour – and likely sooner rather than later.

“We’ve only got four locks on this trip and it takes one lock to go down and then bang, he’s in,” Plumtree said on Wednesday. “If you look at seniority, the other three are ahead of him, yes, but Tups has been with us through the Steinlager series. He was training with us the whole time and we were leaking him back to play for Taranaki, which was great for him, getting some game time.”

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Vaa’i featured twice for Taranaki in the NPC, helping the side to handy victories over Hawke’s Bay and Northland, before the season was postponed due to New Zealand’s latest Covid outbreak.

Plumtree was complimentary of Vaa’i’s form but also suggested that we’re certainly yet to see the best of the hulking lock, who really came out of nowhere last year to thrust his way into the national selection frame.

“He looks fit and strong and we’re really excited about him and what he can bring to the All Blacks,” Plumtree said.

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“He’s probably one of the best natural locks I’ve seen in terms of playing around the park. He’s like a Brodie Retallick, a young Brodie Retallick around [how] he can play with ball [in hand], what his feet are like before contact. He’s getting tougher all the time and the set-piece work is getting better. He’s been under some good coaching at the Chiefs so really, really impressed with him.”

The upcoming tests against Argentina loom as Vaa’i’s best shot for some game time before the trip to the USA, with the All Blacks likely to call on their top trio for this weekend’s game against the Wallabies, as well as the two upcoming grudge matches with the Springboks.

The All Blacks will name their side to take on the Wallabies on Friday afternoon.

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All Blacks still waiting to unleash 'young Brodie Retallick'

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