Roll the clock on two or three years, and imagine yourself walking down a rugby-smart street. Stop any man or woman, and ask them a question: ‘Who were the outstanding second rows in the world over the past decade?’ The great majority will rattle off the same names: Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Eben Etzebeth in the Southern Hemisphere; Alun-Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje up north.
Since the break-up of the legendary Springbok duo of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield after the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, it is Retallick and Whitelock who have been the senior statesmen on the global scene. They have been the pair against whom all-comers must measure themselves if they want to plant their flags in the ground and stake out their claims.
When they trotted out onto the old cabbage patch at Twickenham for the last match of the All Blacks’ long 2022 season, Whitelock and Retallick were setting a world record of 64 appearances together in the engine room, surpassing the mark set by Botha and Matfield in the process. At the same time, the man known as ‘Guzzler’ joined the elite club of New Zealand cap centurions, on the same afternoon that Sam Whitelock made his 142nd appearance for the men in black.
It has been some story. As Retallick commented before the game against England, “Those two players [Botha and Matfield] were two I looked up to, and saw a lot of, when I was younger and it will be cool to say we have done that as well.
“In hindsight, we [Retallick and Whitelock] have played a lot together and it’s a relationship I cherish, and we spend a lot of time together.
“I’m pretty relaxed and he likes to nail his homework, and he’s a farmer and hunter. I don’t really do much of that these days but we definitely get on.”
They are still the best pair of locks available to New Zealand by a distance, even with a combined age of 66 years. They are so good that they have pushed the next-best second row, Crusader Scott Barrett, onto the bench; or into the blind-side flanker role for which he was selected against England, both in late 2022 and in the climactic 2019 World Cup semi-final in Yokohama.
The raw stats for New Zealand’s four most experience second-rowers front-runners ahead of the Rugby World Cup (up to and including round 14 of Super Rugby Pacific) make for interesting reading:
Others like Tupou Vai’i will come into the equation, but the top three are clearly head and shoulders above the rest. The Guzzler’s point of difference is quite clear from the stats. He has grown into a true all-rounder in his position, fulfilling his core duties at set-piece with some significant bells and whistles added: Retallick can compete for the ball on the ground after the tackle effectively, and his work rate at cleanout time is borderline insane.
The days when the youthful version of Brodie Retallick could carry, pass and make decisions in the middle of New Zealand’s old 2-4-2 pod formation on attack are now long gone. Who can forget the fireworks at the beginning of one of the great Rugby Championship games between the All Blacks and Springboks, worshipping at the shrine of the old Ellis Park back in 2013?
Retallick was literally in the centre of the action, his presence in the middle of that midfield forward pod key to some crucial moments in the match at the 2:42 mark and 14:00 mark in the below video:
In his thirties, the new model Retallick has become meaner, and his game has contracted around the personality of Bakkies Botha. He has become ever more of an enforcer: relentless at the cleanout and in defensive contact, and especially good at disrupting the opposition lineout, both on the ground and in the air.
The stats for spoiled lineouts and dismantled mauls don’t show up much on the official pages, but they are critical to the output of a modern second row. Officially, the Chiefs’ opponents last weekend, the Brumbies won all but one of their 17 lineout throws for a near-perfect 94 per cent return. In reality, the outcomes for the home side were seldom as comfortable as they looked from the vantage point of the armchair:
These two lineouts would go down as Brumbies’ wins in the ledger because the receiver (Nick Frost in the first example, and Tom Hooper in the second) gets a first touch to the throw. But in both cases, Retallick puts up such a strong, physical contest in the air that the first touch is fatal for the feeding team.
The Brumbies try to set a ruck well behind the gain line from a loose tap in the first clip, and can only watch helplessly as one of their backs is driven off the cleanout by two brawny Chiefs’ back-rowers. In the second instance, the ricochet off Hooper goes directly into the grateful hands of Luke Jacobson, who has clearly been waiting to pick the crumbs from the Guzzler’s table. There were four such snapshots in the game as a whole, in which statistical wins were as good as a loss for the home side – all because of the exertions of Brodie Retallick in the air.
If anything, Retallick was even more effective and impactful on the ground, when he set his mind to stopping the Brumbies’ lineout drive close to the goal line:
The Brumbies are looking to rotate the maul around the infield corner of a blocking wall manned by Nick Frost – but the longer the maul goes on, the more obviously Retallick splits the bind between the catcher (Hooper) and the blocker (Frost) until the ball has to be moved away. It is not the winning, as ex-England hooker Brian Moore used to say, it’s the taking apart.
Two other defensive mauls demonstrated just how quickly Brodie Retallick – and the Chiefs by proxy – learns his lessons, and showed that a sharp rugby intellect belies the hulking physical frame.
Ireland had scored two maul tries in the decisive third Test of a coruscating July 2022 series against the All Blacks by using exactly the same manoeuvre:
In both cases, the Ireland blocker on the right of the receiver (No 4 Tadhg Beirne, in the blue cap) is not really looking to drive off the two defenders opposite him (Whitelock and Retallick in the first clip, Whitelock and Akira Ioane in the second). He is looking to get a grip on them and pull them away from the epicentre of the contest. As soon as one attacking forward has taken care of two primary defenders and they become detached from the scene of the action, the drive surges forward to the line immediately and the men in green convert both opportunities into tries.
Retallick would have known that the Brumbies regularly adopt exactly the same method on their own short-range drives, and he was ready with the solution:
As soon as Retallick feels Tom Hooper (in the first clip) and Rob Valetini (in the second) begin to pull rather than push, he stays upright for long enough for a collapse to become the trigger for two extra Chiefs forward to hit the maul hard at the newly-exposed soft spot. The first maul was shut down, and the second was turned over.
The Chiefs attacked the Brumbies at their greatest point of strength and nullified it through the biggest of their own big men, Brodie Retallick. It was a tremendous achievement in the light of recent Brumbies’ history, and their well-known potency at the lineout.
Big bad Brodie Retallick may well have one last hurrah in him at the World Cup, alongside his lifelong partner in the All Blacks’ boiler house, Sam Whitelock. The Guzzler will be looking for one final banquet, and he will be eating out with the likes of Paul Willemse and Niccolo Cannone footing the bill at the group stage; if the All Blacks progress further, it may be his old muckers Eben Etzebeth, James Ryan and Maro Itoje on the menu in the knockout stages – or even that one man all-you-can-eat buffet, Australian Will Skelton.
One thing you can be sure of: brothers-in-arms Whitelock and Retallick will using every ounce of their sinew and experience to gain an advantage, small or great, in any area they can. They will leave no stone unturned in their preparation before the game and they will leave it all out on the field when it is played.
Whatever the outcome, they will come off the paddock soaked in sweat, but saturated with the glory of over 250 international caps between them. It will be written down in the rugby annals as one of the most incredible of shared journeys of the professional era.