If you want to be the best team in the world, it helps if you have the best players in every position. It is easy to point to players like Ben Smith and Beauden Barrett when you search for names that have cemented themselves at the top of the global game’s honours list.
However, these are easy marks. First fives and fullbacks are made for running the game, and made for running, full stop. Locks (with some exquisite exceptions over the years) have been less about show and more about go. But through Brodie Retallick the All Blacks have elevated the lock position into a pivotal force in attack, and he has given every opposition team a major headache this year.
Retallick’s workrate is easy to calculate on minutes alone. Just three Rugby Championship locks played more minutes in the tournament than the man affectionately (and rather ominously) known as ‘the Guzzler’. Those three, South African Eben Etzebeth, Argentinean Matias Alemanno and Retallick’s record-setting All Blacks partner Sam Whitelock, are all rightfully regarded as three of the best power forwards in the game, but Retallick stands alone in what he does with his time on the park.
In his 420 minutes this year, Retallick has led all locks in carries, metres made, passes, defenders beaten, clean breaks and turnovers won. Moreover, he ranks fourth in tackles made during the six rounds of championship play, but third overall in tackle percentage. His defensive numbers look doubly impressive given his offensive output is so far ahead of the rest.
In terms of carries, Retallick made 38 in the Rugby Championship, 8 more than both Sam Whitelock and Springbok Pieter-Steph du Toit. That number may not seem significant until you dig a little deeper into the production. Retallick made 129 metres off his ball carry work during the tournament, which is a full 47 metres more than du Toit, the next best, and 71 metres more than Whitelock.
It gets better. Retallick’s 3.4 metres per carry is also more than any other lock with the exception of Patrick Tuipolotu, who featured in just one test, against Argentina, and carried four times for a combined 23 metres with an average gain of 5.7 metres. Retallick also beat 11 defenders on the run.
Eighteen other locks featured in the Rugby Championship and COMBINED those 18 players beat 22 defenders.
When you look at the way Retallick plays, it is clear no other lock assumes a more fundamental role in phase play attack. Retallick is the All Blacks’ go-to player in the midfield. His options are this: he can take on the line and re-set the ball. He can pop an inside pass to a fellow tight forward. He can pop an outside ball to a loose forward. He can turn at the line and throw a release ball out the back to a backline player – halfback or first five – or, and this has become a new option for the All Blacks over the course of the championship, a secondary short ball to a midfielder running between the support forward and Retallick’s shoulder.
All told, that is five attacking options that hinge on Retallick every time he takes the ball in midfield. And he rarely makes a mistake. Just twice during the championship did he turn over the ball. For a man who had 74 possessions across the six games, that is a truly phenomenal statistic. To put it in perspective, Australian Dean Mumm had 32 possessions in six games and coughed up the ball 7 times.
There is something else in Retallick’s possession count that is worthy of a second look, if not a second take. The All Black made 31 passes and 4 offloads over the course of the rugby championship – that is a 47% pass rate on possession. Pieter-Steph du Toit, the next best in terms of passing ability threw just 16 passes and 1 offload, using the option just 33% of the time.
The All Blacks have been rightly lauded for their play during the season’s Rugby Championship, but as Retallick’s number show, perhaps their greatest weapon is not just having the best players in their positions, but changing the way those positions are played. At the moment there is no lock in the world with so much riding on their performance, and no lock in the world delivering a Retallick-level performance.