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Succession planning can't take a back seat in All Blacks' second row

By Tom Vinicombe
Scott Barrett, Tupou Vaa'i and Patrick Tuipulotu. (Photos by Getty Images)

For one reason or another, the All Blacks locks have really struggled to hit their stride over the past three years.

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Brodie Retallick’s dislocated shoulder suffered during the 2019 Rugby Championship meant the former Player of the Year had minimal minutes under his belt come the fateful World Cup semi-final, and it showed.

Earlier that season, Scott Barrett’s red card against Australia in Perth effectively cost NZ the match while Sam Whitelock looked to be on his last legs by the time the World Cup rolled around, and the trio of Retallick, Barrett and Whitelock were all well and truly bested by England in that dogged semi-final.

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A rugby player’s Christmas.
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A rugby player’s Christmas.

Last year, after a mini-break from the game, Whitelock was back to his best but Retallick was on sabbatical and absent entirely. Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu, meanwhile, toiled away but still weren’t reaching the lofty heights that many would have anticipated of the two 28-year-olds, given their obvious potential visible during their younger years. Tupou Vaa’i was also added to the mix after an impressive debut season for the Chiefs and looked like he could have a long career in the black jersey while still very much being wet behind the ears.

In 2021, Retallick returned to the fold but never appeared to fully adjust back to the rigours of test rugby. It’s been more than two years since we’ve really seen him at his best. Whitelock started out strongly and his absence was keenly felt during the Rugby Championship, where the All Blacks were outsmarted at lineout time. Upon his return on the end-of-year tour, however, his form was more akin to 2019 than 2020 and despite his obvious world-class abilities at lineout time, he was outplayed around the park by many of his European opposition.

Barrett certainly stepped up to shoulder some hefty responsibilities in the early part of the year, managing six stars, but neither he nor Tuipulotu – who had just two starts to his name – headed north with the side. Their absence in Europe paved the way for Josh Lord to join the ranks of the All Blacks but that was very much a decision driven on the youngster’s potential, as opposed to him currently being the sixth-best lock in the country, while Vaa’i continued his development with the side.

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All in all, it hasn’t been a vintage few years in the locking department for the All Blacks and Ian Foster will be hoping that a more traditional calendar in 2022 (pandemic permitting) will allow the likes of Retallick and Whitelock to get back to their best.

This year, Retallick will have a full Super Rugby campaign under his belt before taking the field in the black jersey, while Whitelock, nor any of his NZ teammates, will be served up the same lengthy slog of a season as 2021.

That bodes well for the primary duo, while youngsters Vaa’i and Lord will also benefit hugely from another round of Super Rugby under their belt, as well as the presence of Retallick at the Chiefs.

Tuipulotu, on the other hand, is now following in the footsteps of Whitelock and Retallick and is spending a season in Japan.

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Come July, when Ireland arrive in NZ, Foster will likely select five locks at the absolute most for the mid-year clashes with Ireland. Whitelock and Retallick are certain selections and with 41 and 48 caps to their names respectively, you would almost think that Tuipulotu and Barrett would be safe bets too, leaving Vaa’i and Lord to scrap it out for the final spot in the team. Certainly, there’s no bigger goal for Foster than to win the World Cup in 2023 and that means picking the best men for the job.

From a long-term point of view, however, there’s a little bit of a problem with the first-choice quartet.

Barrett, the youngest of the lot, will be on the cusp of his 30th birthday when the tournament in France comes to a close. Tuipulotu will have turned 30 earlier that year while Retallick and Whitelock will be 32 and 35 respectively. All four of the group have contracts ending in 2023 and it’s entirely within the realms of possibility that the foursome will all call time on their test rugby careers.

Retallick has already indicated that the World Cup will likely be his international swansong while it’s all but a given that Whitelock will hang up his boots. Barrett and Tuipulotu have the greatest chance of remaining in NZ and continuing to build their legacies but they’re hardly spring chickens.

Again, the World Cup is always going to be the biggest priority but as former All Black Justin Marshall said last month, “the All Blacks have never been a side that slowly build towards major competitions, we’ve never been a team that targets World Cups and says ‘We’re learning, we’ll get there’. The pathway to the World Cup is equally as important as the World Cup itself.”

After somewhat of a disappointing year that certainly harmed the All Blacks’ aura, how comfortable will New Zealand Rugby be heading into 2024 with all four of their experienced locks out of the picture?

Vaa’i and Lord may pick up minutes here and there over the next two seasons but as the fifth and sixth second-rowers in the pecking order, there’s a very real chance they could miss out on the majority of squads altogether.

Unless, of course, Foster makes a big call this year and decides that it’s time to see what the new breed of locks can do when given the chance. Perhaps Barrett’s and Tuipulotu’s positions in the July squad aren’t quite so guaranteed as many would assume.

Tuipulotu’s spot is probably the most at threat, given he’ll be away for the Super Rugby season. Foster may decide that he’s best served to acclimatise himself to NZ rugby via the NPC for a few rounds before returning to the national set-up during the Rugby Championship. If Tuipulotu’s time in Japan sees him reinvigorated, as it did when Whitelock returned from his short stint there in 2020, it will make Foster’s selection meetings even tougher. If, however, Tuipulotu needs a bit more time to get up to speed, as was the case with Retallick last year (although he did spend two full seasons in Japan), that could hand Vaa’i or Lord the opportunity to jump a couple of places in the pecking order.

The worst thing for New Zealand rugby would be for the All Blacks to lose all four of their first-choice locks after the 2023 Rugby World Cup and unless there’s a change-up in the near future, that’s entirely possible. Perhaps, however, another full season of Super Rugby alongside Brodie Retallick will be just what Tupou Vaa’i or Josh Lord needs to really bring their game up to the level needed for week-in, week-out test rugby.

Either way, Ian Foster will be hoping that the stars have aligned for the coming two seasons and while the All Blacks’ second-rowers haven’t necessarily been at their best over the past few seasons, there’s reason to be optimistic ahead of 2023.

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