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FEATURE The All Blacks need to find their new 'bastards'

The All Blacks need to find their new 'bastards'
1 year ago

The list of New Zealand’s departing players continues to grow by the day – and some will prove considerably tougher to replace than others.

Following this year’s Rugby World Cup in France, Ardie Savea and, in all likelihood, All Blacks captain Sam Cane will spend the Super Rugby season in Japan on well-earned sabbaticals. The likes of Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Shannon Frizell and Richie Mo’unga will also head east, with three of those players likely putting an end to their international aspirations.

Brad Weber is rumoured to be off to France while TJ Perenara and Sam Whitelock are also expected to wind down their careers offshore.

The possible loss of five All Blacks halves has already been well lamented, given the lack of obvious replacements ready to step into their sizeable shoes, but it’s the two most recent departures that might prove even more impactful.

While Brodie Retallick suggested two years ago that 2023 would likely mark his final stint in a black jersey, the confirmation this week that he will head to Kobe following the World Cup is still a blow.

Brodie Retallick spent the 2020 and 2021 Super Rugby seasons playing for Kobe Steelers in Japan. (Photo by Naoki Nishimura/AFLO Sport)

So too is the announcement that Dane Coles will hang up his boots at the end of the season.

While Coles, at 36 years old and marred with injury niggles over the past few seasons, has extricated every ounce of rugby out of his body in a 17-year professional career, 31-year-old Retallick is still a relative spring chicken in tight-five terms.

His second row partner, Sam Whitelock, is three years his senior, while the man who holds the record for most international appearances in the history of the game, Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones, will turn 38 during the upcoming World Cup.

“When I arrived at the Chiefs, and from there making the All Blacks, those first five or six years were pretty full-on – I played a lot of rugby,” Retallick previously told RugbyPass. “I’d sometimes joke with people, they’d say to me, ‘Oh, you’re not that old’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, but I’ve played a lot of rugby’.”

You certainly can’t blame Retallick for his decision to return to Japan, where he spent two seasons in the middle of the current World Cup cycle. Like Coles, Retallick has faced his fair share of injuries and the sizeable tight forward has never quite looked the same after the dislocated shoulder that left him well short of a gallop heading into the last global tournament in 2019.

While men like Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Samisoni Taukei’aho offer ample physicality with their tackling or ball carrying, they don’t possess that rare talent of really getting under the opposition’s skin.

Unlike at halfback and first five-eighth, there are a number of reasonably well-travelled options to take Retallick’s place in the national set-up such as Mitchell Dunshea, Quinten Strange and Josh Lord. It’s a similar story at hooker, with the likes of Brodie McAlister and Kurt Eklund stop-gap options at the very least.

What the next tier of players won’t be able to replicate, however, is the ferocity that both Retallick and Coles bring to the field.

The two tight forwards are the primary enforcers within the All Blacks set-up.

While men like Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Samisoni Taukei’aho offer ample physicality with their tackling or ball carrying, they don’t possess that rare talent of really getting under the opposition’s skin.

Players like Savea and Taukei’aho can win you games with a barnstorming run or by fighting their way through tackle after tackle to build ascendency throughout a match. What men like Coles and to a lesser extent Retallick offer, however, transcends on-field ability.

Etzebeth Springboks Alaalatoa fight
South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth has well and truly earned the ‘enforcer’ tag. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

There’s staunch, and then there’s standing-up-to-Eben-Etzebeth staunch.

Even when the going gets tough, neither Coles nor Retallick will ever back down from a challenge, nor give an inch to the opposition. If anything, they tend to perform better when their backs are up against the wall.

At times, that aspect of their play can be pushed too far – there’s a fine art to toeing the line without ever crossing it, something which Coles has sometimes struggled with throughout his lengthy career.

During the 2019 Bledisloe Cup series, Coles was sin-binned for lashing out at a ruck, just one week after the All Blacks had fallen to a heavy defeat when they’d been forced to play with 14 men in Perth after Scott Barrett had been sent from the field.

‘Mongrel’ is perhaps the perfect word to describe the way Coles and Retallick play their rugby.

“That game we needed to bring a bit of edge and mongrel and I tried to do that,” said Coles of the rematch. “You could see the way we played it was a completely different team from the week before.

“That’s just the way I’ve always played and sometimes it gets me in trouble and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve just got to make sure … I learn my lesson and make sure I stay on the right side of that line. I definitely take that on board. I don’t want to cost the team.”

‘Mongrel’ is perhaps the perfect word to describe the way Coles and Retallick play their rugby – even if they’re nice guys off the pitch. It’s no wonder that the pair were ranked the two “biggest grubs” in New Zealand rugby by a selection of their peers in 2020.

“It probably just comes out as passion and just trying to do everything I can to win. Sometimes it comes out a verbal spray, and I’ve copped it. I’ve been sin-binned for the way I play, with my heart on my sleeve, and I probably play on the edge,” Coles said on the What a Lad podcast in response to the poll.

“Things don’t always go to plan and I’ve got to live with that, but that’s just who I am and it’s got me this far, so I’m just going to keep doing it.”

Dane Coles has never shied away from a bit of on-field niggle. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

With the great levelling out in Test rugby, it’s not necessarily the best team that’s going to emerge victorious when the All Blacks come up against the likes of France, South Africa, Ireland or England at this year’s Rugby World Cup – it might just be the team that can best throw their opposition off their game.

With Coles and Retallick out of the picture next year, the selectors won’t just be weighing up the most talented players on offer to replace them, they’ll be considering the mentality the newbies might bring to the game. You don’t want to pick a man based wholly on the chatter they’ll bring to the pitch, but a few sledges here and there certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

Coles has been rarely sighted in a black jersey in recent times and you could make the case that it’s the edge he brings to the game that NZ have missed since Ian Foster took over as head coach in 2020.

Rieko and Akira Ioane have both been known to say a few choice words on the park while there are undoubtedly a number of young players fighting their ways through the ranks at present who have still maintained a bit of an ‘old school’ mentality when it comes to building ascendency on the pitch.

The old adage goes that better men make better All Blacks – but sometimes what you really need is just a bit of a bastard.


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