When the Kobelco Steelers take to the field for the first time in 2021 next Saturday, it will mark the final few months before Brodie Retallick finally becomes eligible to play for the All Blacks once again.
As he prepares to kick-off the second of his two Top League campaigns against Yamaha Jubilo as part of his 18-month sabbatical deal, many in New Zealand will be counting down the days until the 29-year-old returns on a permanent basis.
More pertinently, the focus and excitement surrounding Retallick’s comeback will centre around his world-leading talents being injected back into an All Blacks side that would have been better off with his experience and ability in their ranks last year.
If Ian Foster’s men had the mongrel, commitment, passion and steely resolve that Retallick so often brings to the fore, the All Blacks might have put up much more of a stern challenge against a resolute Pumas side that – inspired by a forward pack that outshone their opponents in every aspect – reigned supreme in Parramatta.
Whether the 81-test veteran would have been selected the week beforehand in the loss to the Wallabies is questionable given the experimental lineup Foster dabbled with at Suncorp Stadium, but his years of test rugby could have swayed the 24-22 defeat in New Zealand’s favour.
That’s not to say the likes of Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett (aside from his needless yellow card in the Wallabies defeat), Patrick Tuipulotu and Tupou Vaa’i didn’t offer anything on the international stage, but it is difficult for any side to fill a void as large as the one that Retallick left at the All Blacks.
It’s for that reason that the 2014 World Rugby Player of the Year will seamlessly slot straight back into Foster’s squad for the July test series against Italy and Fiji once his Top League commitments have been completed.
Make no mistake about it, unless injury strikes, he will be there alongside Whitelock, Barrett and Tuipulotu as the incumbent second-row quartet in the national pecking order.
That, coupled with an easy run of fixtures against the Italians and Fijians prior to the return of a full-fledged Rugby Championship, will put the All Blacks in better stead to improve on their 50 percent win rate from 2020.
But, while Retallick took the chance to put his feet up and watch his side as a spectator, perhaps one of the unheralded victories that came from his absence last year was the breadth of depth developed in New Zealand’s lock stocks.
At the time of his jettison to Japan, questions arose about how adequately the All Blacks could fill their second-row contingent without Retallick, an issue that was amplified when Barrett missed months of action through a broken toe.
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Without either player, Whitelock and Tuipulotu were the only two fit locks in the country with All Blacks experience to their name who still remained realistic prospects for inclusion in Foster’s squad.
Even All Blacks selector Grant Fox went on record to express New Zealand’s lack of second-row depth ahead of the first squad announcement of 2020.
“We are not overly blessed in the locking department with big, strong athletic men,’’ Fox told Newstalk ZB in July.
“We have lots of guys who are a good physical size, who are great toilers who roll their sleeves up and get stuck in but in our view, we can’t have everybody of the same ilk.
“We needs some contrast in that.’’
At the time of his remarks, it was hard to argue against Fox’s assertion, but after a whole Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, the picture had changed.
Plucked from the realm of obscurity was 20-year-old Vaa’i, who didn’t even have a contract with the Chiefs before the New Zealand-only competition kicked-off.
He was joined by Crusaders starlet Quinten Strange, a man projected by many to challenge for a place in the All Blacks at the beginning of the year based on the lofty potential he had shown with the Crusaders and Tasman.
Considering Strange had also been out of action for large portions of the season through injury, it was a large show of faith by the selectors to pick both him and Vaa’i alongside Whitelock and Tuipulotu in the initial 35-man squad.
That’s not to say it was a show of blind show of faith, though.
All Blacks star Brodie Retallick has apologised to fans and promised to secure his Instagram account with a stronger password after recovering it from a hacker.https://t.co/Bs8RXZu8NU
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 6, 2021
Impressing with his energetic and physical showings, Vaa’i went on to make four appearances throughout the season, and looks set to form an imposing second-row combination with Retallick at the Chiefs upon the latter’s return to the franchise next year.
Strange, meanwhile, was robbed of a test debut due to injury, with his place in the squad instead taken by Mitchell Dunshea, but it seems only a matter of time before he dons the black jersey for the first time.
Whether either player would have made the cut with Retallick still in the mix is debatable, but both now have the credentials of at least being named as All Blacks, which has gone some way to aiding the shaky lock depth within New Zealand’s ranks.
Last year’s quest to alleviate the country’s second row stocks didn’t stop with Strange and Vaa’i, either.
In the form of fourth-choice Crusaders lock Dunshea, the All Blacks had an emergency back-up on hand for the entirety of their time in Australia.
Not only does that show how highly the national selectors regard the uncapped 25-year-old, but that experience of six weeks abroad in an All Blacks camp will prove invaluable as Dunshea challenges for a starting spot at the Crusaders with Whitelock, Barrett, Strange and Luke Romano.
Branching beyond those who were involved with the All Blacks this year, and there is plenty to admire about the locks who took notice of New Zealand’s shortcomings in that position and put their best foot forward in trying to fill that gap.
Outside of the All Blacks set-up, and one wonders if Pari Pari Parkinson would have blocked the pathway to national honours for all of Strange, Vaa’i and Dunshea had he stayed fit the whole year.
That’s how highly the 2.04m, 119kg behemoth is rated among the Kiwi rugby fraternity, and he certainly stands as one that fits the strong, athletic mould of second-rowers called upon by Fox.
His Highlanders teammates Josh Dickson and Manaaki Selby-Rickit also caught the eye at certain points in 2020.
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The former led Super Rugby Aotearoa by a long way for lineout takes and steals prior to his season-ending injury against the Crusaders in round four, while the latter provided plenty of impact off the bench in the North vs South clash.
It wasn’t enough for Selby-Rickit to earn shock inclusion in the All Blacks like Vaa’i, but it wouldn’t have surprised to see the rangy Southland star on the cusp of selection, a sentiment that can be extended to Dickson and Parkinson if they were available.
Further north, Blues fan favourite Tom Robinson has had rotten luck with a persistent knee injury and has been deployed on the side of the scrum more often than the second-row.
But, an extended spell with the Auckland franchise (that is already stacked with loose forwards, which could force him into the tight five) might have made for a compelling case for a crack at international footy based on what we have already seen from him.
In reality, though, this year’s return of Retallick may have dented the All Blacks aspirations held by Robinson, Parkinson, Dickson, Selby-Rickit, Strange, Dunshea and Vaa’i.
However, the fact that those seven players are even in the conversation for an international call-up should be heralded as a success by the All Blacks and New Zealand Rugby given the state of which Retallick left them in ahead of his Japanese sojourn.
In the case of Vaa’i and his four tests, as well as Dunshea’s prolonged exposure to the All Blacks environment, an extra layer of credibility has been added to New Zealand’s depth chart at lock that wasn’t there at the beginning of 2020.
The challenge for those players is to now usurp the four incumbents destined for international rugby later on in 2021, something few would have seen as a realistic proposition 12 months ago.
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