'The future in the locking department' set to make All Blacks impact
The All Blacks have fielded some exceptional locking combinations in recent years – think Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, Whitelock and Brad Thorn, or Chris Jack and Ali Williams – and they’re set to unveil another one for the ages against the Eagles this weekend.
While the return of Whitelock to the fore after missing New Zealand’s last five tests is a story in itself, all eyes will be on youngster Josh Lord, who is set to earn his test debut on Saturday despite having played just five matches for the Chiefs earlier this season.
With just four specialist locks in the squad and Retallick likely heading to Europe before this weekend’s encounter, given his heavy workload to date, just Whitelock, Tupou Vaa’i and Lord will remain in Maryland for the fixture with the USA.
Shannon Frizell – also only making his return to the squad in recent days – is likely seen as locking coverage and could have featured, were it not for an untimely injury suffered for Tasman in the NPC. His injury, however, paves the way for Lord to earn an unprecedented debut, likely off the bench.
The 21-year-old won’t be the only youngster in the engine room, however, with his Chiefs teammate Vaa’i also the same age.
Earlier in the week, 33-year-old Whitelock suggested that Lord was taking his elevation into the squad in his stride while forwards coach and selection John Plumtree has also commended the youngster’s quick acclimatisation to preparing for test rugby.
“There’ll be a lot to take in if he’s selected but certainly, knowing him for just the short time and knowing him through the conversations I’ve had with the other players, I don’t think it’s going to intimidate him,” Plumtree said.
“He’s certainly showed me that he’s a good, smart youngster [and] he’s pretty switched onto the calling system.”
Despite Vaa’i also being relatively inexperienced, having only made his test debut last year and clocking up just seven appearances for the All Blacks to date, the young Chief has done what he can to bring his provincial and Super Rugby teammate up to speed.
“Tupou Vaa’i is taking him under his wing and teaching him and obviously Tups is pretty young in that regard as well but it’s nice to have both those boys that we see as being the future in the locking department there, working together,” said Plumtree.
“If Josh gets a start this week or comes off the bench, I’m sure he’s not going to let anyone down. He’s just a really natural athlete, good attitude, so a big future in front of him.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 20, 2021
With Whitelock and Retallick both likely to call times on their test careers post the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, Vaa’i and Lord could be integral to the rebuilding that will need to take place following that tournament and while neither will necessarily feature in the biggest matches on the All Blacks’ horizons, the lessons they’ll learn simply from being a part of the squad could prove hugely beneficial for their careers.
While it’s still early days for the two Taranaki representatives, the pair undoubtedly have a big future.
For Vaa’i, Saturday’s match looms as a chance for last year’s test debutant to really stretch his legs, having spent most of the international season camped on the season, biding his time behind Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu, who have both returned to New Zealand.
For Lord, simply getting out on the field will be a massive achievement. Test debuts aren’t handed out easily, and the confidence the 21-year-old will gain from playing alongside one of the most capable second-rowers in the world in the form of Sam Whitelock will be an invaluable experience.
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