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How deep into the barrel must the All Blacks look for their next lock?

By Ned Lester
Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Scott Barrett, Isaia Walker-Leawere and Sam Whitelock. Photo by David Ramos - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images, Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images, Michael Bradley/Getty Images, Michael Steele - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images.

While competition for selection in Scott Robertson’s first All Blacks squad is fierce and only heating up further as we near the Super Rugby Pacific finals, there is one position where New Zealand is undeniably lacking depth: the second row.

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Of course, the famous black jersey will be missing two of its most renowned servants in 2024, with both Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick now retired from the international arena.

But the problems don’t end there for Robertson and company. Injury clouds hang over their next best options.

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Patrick Tuipulotu has just been revealed to have ligament damage in his knee which will see him miss the England series and the Test against Fiji in San Diego. This comes after the 43-cap All Black missed the start of the season with a jaw issue.

Scott Barrett has also missed the majority of the Super Rugby Pacific season, initially with a broken finger and more recently due to back spasms. The nature of that injury makes it hard to gauge a timeline for Barrett – a potential All Blacks captain – to return.

So, who’s next? Well, let’s take a look at the options. Here are seven players, listed in order of selection likelihood according to this writer, as well as one bonus player to keep an eye on.

Tupou Vaa’i

24 years old
198 cm
118 kg

Vaa’i will start against England. That much is now clear in the minds of many. While the 24-year-old hasn’t looked all that comfortable on the international stage thus far in his young career, 2024 has seen Vaa’i embrace added responsibility in Retallick’s absence and thrive with it.

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Key statistics to help Vaa’i’s case are found in the Chiefs’ lineout, where they finished the regular season as the most successful team with Vaa’i leading the way in takes.

The Chiefs also topped the season statistics in ruck success, retaining more ball than any other team, a sign of an incredibly hard-working forward pack.

Vaa’i, despite his youth, is the most experienced international option remaining and by far the most in-form. He made 108 of his 116 tackles through nearly 800 minutes this season.

Sam Darry

23 y.0.
2.03 cm
110 kg

Darry has to be considered a leading contender for All Blacks selection against England as a well-rounded young prospect and the tallest available player on this list.

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When healthy, Darry has put his name forward for All Blacks selection in recent seasons and at just 23 years of age, projects to be a worthy investment.

The Blues ranked third in lineout success in the 2024 regular season, although Darry wasn’t employed as a jumper as much as his fellow locks or No. 8 Hoskins Sotutu.

Darry did contribute 72 tackles to the best defensive team in the competition, making more dominant tackles than misses. The Blues were also the second most successful team at retaining possession around the ruck, with Darry proving a willing ball carrier with a high work rate.

Having grown up in Christchurch and still representing Canterbury in the NPC while playing for the Blues, Darry will have connections to all of the All Blacks coaches.

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Isaia Walker-Leawere

27 y.0.
197 cm
122 kg

A standout from the Hurricanes’ impressive 2024 campaign, Walker-Leawere has the chance to build on his 2023 All Blacks XV selection by going one better in 2024.

The Hurricanes pack have been immense this season, boasting the second-best lineout success and third-best ruck success as well as a powerful scrum.

Walker-Leawere has heavily contributed to each of those aspects of the game, claiming by far the most lineout takes on his team and working hard around the breakdown.

The 27-year-old made 133 of his 150 tackle attempts during the regular season and played 13 games, proving his durability in a demanding schedule.

One reason Walker-Leawere may be considered a liability however is his discipline, having conceded almost double the number of penalties in 2024 compared to the next worst offender on his team.

Perhaps with Scott Robertson’s track record of empowering players, the coach could bring the best and most disciplined side out of the Hurricanes powerhouse, but the reward is matched by the risk.

Naitoa Ah Kuoi

24 y.0.
198 cm
116 kg

Among the many talented locks on the Chiefs roster, Ah Kuoi has, for a couple of seasons now, been the most lethal defensively at lineout time. The 24-year-old again led his team in lineout steals this season.

Ah Kuoi has clearly caught the eye of All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan previously as he was selected for the All Blacks XV in 2023 and performed exceptionally well on the tour of Japan.

It’s also worth noting that All Blacks XV team was led by two names now found alongside Ryan in the All Blacks coaching staff; Leon MacDonald and Scott Hansen.

The latter of those two may hold the key to Ah Kuoi’s selection, as the young fan favourite thrived in the All Blacks XV defensive system which saw him rushing out of the line to make the initial hits behind the gain line, a strategy that allowed the fetchers of the team to put huge pressure on the breakdown.

Ah Kuoi has made 61 of his 69 tackles through his 491 minutes this season and brings energy and character both on and off the field.

Quinten Strange

27 y.o.
199 cm
114 kg

Perhaps the most experienced option for All Blacks consideration, Strange’s game will be well-known to selectors.

Strange had the opportunity to step up for the Crusaders in 2024, but Sam Whitelock’s boots are mighty large and filling them proved as difficult as one might expect. In saying that, when surrounded by a more experienced forward pack, specifically after the return of Codie Taylor, Strange looked far more comfortable on the field.

The Crusaders’ lineout was a shambles in the early part of this season and Strange’s brain fart at the end of the game against the Brumbies ultimately cost his team the result, a particularly poor mistake given his team were just a few points shy of making the playoffs.

Despite all of that though, there’s no denying Strange’s ability to work hard and provide the needed dirty work for wins, having been involved in the entity of the Scott Robertson-era Crusaders dynasty.

Strange also boasts an All Blacks XV selection in 2023 and was a part of the All Blacks’ 2020 Rugby Championship squad but an injury forced him to leave camp early.

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Josh Lord

23 y.o.
202 cm
106 kg

Lord’s injury woes have continued in 2024. After returning from a torn ACL he suffered midway through 2022, Lord appeared in the All Blacks’ opening Test of 2023 but was the less experienced option heading into the Rugby World Cup so didn’t make the cut.

An ankle complaint saw the youngster miss the opening few rounds of this season and he only managed 130 minutes of action before a knee issue surfaced. He hasn’t been seen since.

At the time, Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan said Lord’s injuries weren’t healing as expected and so the team looked to be taking a cautious approach moving forward. He has however been participating in Chiefs trainings.

Should he end up being healthy and available for All Blacks selection, Lord offers a tall frame and plenty of mobility, but whether or not he can stay on the field is unfortunately a big question mark at this point.

Laghlan McWhannell

25 y.o.
198 cm
114 kg

One name who re-appeared out of the blue in 2024 was Laghlan McWhannell, and while the 25-year-old doesn’t boast the CV of the others on this list, he can certainly compete with their talent.

A highlight of the 2018 New Zealand U20 campaign, injuries have held the former Chiefs forward back throughout his young career. But, having sought a fresh start in Auckland, McWhannell is finally on the field again and showing the promise he offered all those years ago.

McWhannell claimed the most lineout takes of any Blues player this season, playing more minutes than any of his second-row teammates.

He did however miss the most tackles for any Blues player, falling off 20 of his 101 efforts. It’s likely the All Blacks will look to more proven players.

One to watch: Fabian Holland

21 y.o.
204 cm
124 kg

Holland is not available for All Blacks selection yet, he has one more year before qualifying under World Rugby’s residency laws – something All Blacks coach Scott Robertson had a keen awareness of when asked about the 21-year-old earlier in the year.

His name is worth mentioning as his form would otherwise demand inclusion so he looks likely to be an All Black in 2025. This means reinforcements are en route for Razor, and the selectors this season may have a short-lived window to impress at the next level.

Holland is a breakdown turnover machine and a safe pair of hands at lineout time, also proving to be one of the Highlanders’ most robust tacklers while being the biggest lock in the country.

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In the latest episode of Walk the Talk, Jim Hamilton chats with double World Cup winner Damian de Allende about all things Springbok rugby, including RWC2023 and the upcoming Ireland series. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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Comments

24 Comments
M
Michael 10 days ago

Regardless of his ill discipline no one is performing at the level of walker-leawere. Also stood up in the semi despite being in the losing team

p
paul 13 days ago

For years nz struggled with short and average locks compared to the likes of aus and sa. It’s feeling like back to those days for now.

G
Greg 14 days ago

Those listed weights are woefully out of date (for Lord and Darry particularly) and the Super clubs should be more diligent in updating this vital stat. I agree re Ah Kuoi as a bolter - he has the grunt for lock cover at international level but his future might be at 6. He’s a brilliant line-out option, is fast and agile and has the soft hands of a slip. It is such a shame about Holland - Breakdown’s stats showed he made 28 tackles against the Brumbies! Can that be right?

J
Jasyn 15 days ago

Josh Lord has the most upside, but at only 106kg you can see why he's more injury prone than Blackadder.

It’s also ridiculous that Fabian Holland doesn't qualify until the end of 2025, when he's been in NZ since high school.

Yet kiwi players all over the place virtually have an arm through another nations jersey before they’ve even hopped on the plane because of some silly heritage ‘link’ to a country they’ve never set foot in. Ridiculous.

J
Jen 15 days ago

Look, I’m only 5’2” but I’m strong AF and if someone can chuck me on their shoulders I’m totally open to giving it a crack.

N
Nickers 15 days ago

The silver lining to the lock injury/lack of depth situation is that a number of these guys will get a run for the ABs this year when they otherwise wouldn’t have, and a couple of them will show that they have what it takes at the higher level.

On average they are definitely on the shorter side, but Ireland’s locks in particular have shown you don’t need to be over 2m to be a world class lock.

If Sotutu is selected he will be able to take some of the line out burden as he is one of the best in the country in that department.

I hope that Razor will be bold with his selections.

M
Mark 15 days ago

Ah Kuoi could well be the man under the radar who gets a crack in the squad if he has a screamer on the weekend. He wouldn’t be the first to sneak in under the radar and stranger things have happened.

J
Jamie 15 days ago

Jamie Hannah is one for the future also ..As for leawere and Strange both are rocks and diamonds type players for everything they do good they then do something twice as bad ..With big paddy out id be putting Darry as back up for Barrett and Vaai

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Mzilikazi 1 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Very good article, Nic, and I find agreement with what you write virtually 100%. I think this two mach series has increasingly become one which will be very difficult for Ireland to win. After the first game of the last 6N, I would have been very full of confidence taking on the Boks in SA. France beaten by a big margin in France, it looked as if Ireland had emerged in fine form from the World Cup, despite the very narrow loss to the AB’s. But after that game, a slide began, ending with the defeat to England. Ireland were very fortunate to win this years 6N ! And as you so fully expose, this has not been a good season for Leinster, or indeed, in my view, for any Irish province. The Leinster loos to the Bulls, and then Munster letting a glorious chance slip to the Glasgow Warriors down at Thomond. Man, that one will really hurt. And both Connacht and Ulster have at times looked very poor this seaso, bith heavily beaten on occassion. The loss of both Gibson Park and Keenan are huge blows, especially Gibson Park. And there is really only one clear class 10 in the touring party, Jack Crowley, and he is still a very young player learning his trade. If he goes down, heaven help Ireland. And in my view, Ireland do not have a good scrummaging front row, SA do, and in great depth too. But despite all this doom and gloom, I always believe my team can win. Not that they will win, just can ! Ireland will still field what is the best and most talented team overall that I have seen in my lifetime. But the coaching group will really have to step up, no awful decisions like the one made against the AB’s in the QF….keeping the totally spent and poorly performing(on the day) Sexton on for the full 80mins, leaving Crowley on the sidelines. Ireland should never have lost that game !

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S
Shaylen 4 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Ireland have all the tools required to hurt SA. They develop quick ball, hold onto the ball for long periods, stretch the game when its on, have powerful mobile forwards, a good kicking game and they can hold their own in the scrum. They also can force turnovers regularly and in general do well at the breakdown. When Munster, the Ospreys and Glasgow all won games in SA this year against the Bulls and Stormers they did just that and won. It is also the reason why Ireland won the game at the world cup last year. The problem for Ireland is that SA have all the tools required to hurt them as well and hurt them a great deal more than England did in the Six Nations. They are physical and powerful at the set piece, they rush up and counter the Irish attacking system and they can really attack the breakdown and slow your ball down. Their counterattacking threat is also a big weapon and they score many tries from turnover turning defence into offence in a second. Toulouse and the Bulls nailed Leinster in this way and Glasgow did the same thing to Munster. So the series will be really interesting because both sides are so good at countering each other. Interested to see what kind of surprises Tony Brown springs and how the SA game develops. Feel like SA have more potential to surprise Ireland but then a new coaching set up as well as the fact that Japanese and foreign based players tend to take about 5 to 6 weeks to get up to speed might work in Irelands favour. SA have shipped at least one game in 4 of the last 5 June/July test windows going back to 2018 for this exact reason.

60 Go to comments
F
Flankly 6 hours ago
'Let them keep talking' - Mike Catt claps back over Bok remarks

The comments were reported weirdly. De Allende did say it would be war, but he said it amidst comments like “Ireland play such good footy”, and “they are so good at the breakdown”. He said that the Boks lost heavily to Ireland a few years back and that they felt the Irish press was dismissive of the Boks. I don’t recall that, but I suppose it is true, and that SA players would want to turn around that sentiment. The RWC loss to Ireland would naturally pour fuel on the fire. In short, it is a natural thing for passionate players like him to feel very strongly about the goal of registering a convincing series win against Ireland. There is really nothing to see here. As an aside, the SA team shouldn’t be too self-righteous about this kind of a situation. Recall that in 2004, after SA won the Ireland series in SA, Jake White noted that no more than two Irish players were good enough for selection in his Bok side. "Considering the facts, I think only two of their players would be included in the Bok team - O'Driscoll (centre) and maybe one of the locks. How could we have lost against the Irish?" O’Driscoll disagreed and said that it was close, and Ireland were just tired. My Irish friends were pretty incensed by the comments, quite rightly. And I am sure it was part of the energy that drove them to some famous wins against the Boks. The Etzebeth thing was a little different. I think he was just not hearing what was being said. It is not that unusual for someone to say “We will see you in the final”. Of course it is a statement of confidence, which every team should have, but it is also a compliment. I think there was a cultural fly-by, in which a “see you soon” comment was taken to mean “we will beat you again”. But it was a good story, and a convenient clickbaity headline. I don’t think anyone is intentionally trying to rile up anything. But if you interview a Bok player and prod them about their passion wrt the Ireland tour, you are likely to hear some pretty heartfelt words. And so you should.

21 Go to comments
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