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FEATURE Who can replace the iconic All Blacks duo Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick?

Who can replace the iconic All Blacks duo Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick?
5 months ago

Looking back at the World Cup quarter-final between New Zealand and Ireland, it’s hard to know what separated the two teams in the end.

Perhaps it was New Zealand’s ability to be that fraction more clinical in the key moments – their ability to be accurate under pressure to ensure they scored when half chances presented – and that when they needed to stay onside and keep their discipline to successfully defend 37 consecutive phases in the final play of the game, they were able to do so.

Whatever enabled the All Blacks to find a way to win 28-24 in what was a truly great game of rugby, it’s apparent, three months on, that they are going to have to find another gear again if they are to repeat the feat of beating Ireland when the two sides next meet in November this year.

Ireland, in beating France 38-17 in the two sides’ first game since being knocked out of last year’s World Cup, showed they are not harbouring any post-tournament hangover and have in fact become stronger since that defeat.

Scott Barrett
Several contenders are vying to join the established Scott Barrett in the All Blacks second row (Photo Henry Browne – World Rugby via Getty Images)

And key to their resurgence, or at least critical to their performance in Marseille, was the performance of Joe McCarthy in the second row.

The 22-year-old was unmissable, such was his work rate and ability to damage the French on both sides of the ball. His presence gave the Irish pack not only an increased muscularity and dynamism, but a level of intimidation that stunned their opponents.

There were other factors that enabled Ireland to play with a level of skill and intensity that was equal to, if not better than, their performance against the All Blacks, but there is no doubt that the impact of McCarthy was significant, not only for what he brought, but in his ability to accentuate the qualities of his locking partner Tadhg Beirne.

Modern rugby is won in the trenches and a thundering athlete such as McCarthy can have a greater transformational effect than the discovery of a twinkle-toed, goal-kicking fly-half.

If the All Blacks are to be a force in 2024 and have a genuine hope of beating both Ireland and France, as well as South Africa,  then they are going to need to find at least one, if not two second-rows who have raw power, athleticism and soft skills

In the last 30 minutes of the World Cup quarter-final, the All Blacks had three locks on the field in Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock – the former providing a ball-carrying thump and destructive energy, while the latter two were recognised as the greatest second-row combination New Zealand has ever produced.

The three of them – with Barrett at blindside once Whitelock had come off the bench – brought a rare combination of scrummaging power, lineout dominance and general brilliance around the field.

What makes Ireland’s discovery of McCarthy so poignant, of course, is that while Ireland have discovered a young bruiser with huge potential in their second row, New Zealand are going to be casting their net far and wide throughout Super Rugby in the hope they can land someone to replace Retallick and Whitelock.

If the All Blacks are to be a force in 2024 and have a genuine hope of beating both Ireland and France, whom they will meet in consecutive weekends in November, as well as South Africa – who they will play back-to-back in the Republic in the Rugby Championship – then they are going to need to find at least one, if not two second-rows who have raw power, athleticism and soft skills.

Patrick Tuipulotu
Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu offers an experienced option but a broken jaw will prevent him staking a claim for 10 weeks (Photo Phil Walter/Getty Images)

What’s apparent is that the All Blacks have to find a player who doesn’t so much off-set the loss of Retallick and Whitelock but give the team a renewed energy, dynamism and physicality to take them to a higher level.

Ahead of Super Rugby kicking off, most commentators have suggested that the lead contender to fill the void is Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu.

At 128kg (20st 2lb) and 2.02m (6ft 7in), Tuipulotu brings a heft to whatever team he plays for and a cool, calm head.

But although Tuipulotu was first capped in 2014 and has played 43 Tests, he’s never been able to consistently deliver the crunch and punch that he does in Super Rugby.

The best locks of the last decade – Retallick, Whitelock, Maro Itoje, Eben Etzebeth, Paul O’Connell and Courtney Lawes – have all been relentlessly aggressive and destructive and they all made an immediate impression in Test rugby.

He’s been hot and cold for the All Blacks and there are mixed views now that Tuipulotu is 31 as to whether he’s about to blossom, or whether he’s missed his window.

His Blues coach, Vern Cotter, was asked whether he felt Tuipulotu will be on the All Blacks’ radar in 2024, and said: “I think they’ll be looking very closely at him. He’s just what they need with a couple of big players leaving.”

But the arguments that Tuipulotu may simply not be cut out to be a Test great are more persuasive.

What sets the great locks apart is their mentality – that sense of desire to make their physical presence felt and to impose themselves on the game.

The best locks of the last decade – Retallick, Whitelock, Maro Itoje, Eben Etzebeth, Paul O’Connell and Courtney Lawes – have all been relentlessly aggressive and destructive and they all made an immediate impression in Test rugby.

Josh Lord
Josh Lord (centre) played for New Zealand in their warm-up Tests but did not make their final RWC squad (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

They have all carried a belief that they can dominate and intimidate, something which Tuipulotu has never been able to emulate. The fact he’s going to miss at least the next 10 weeks with a broken jaw picked up in a pre-season clash makes it doubtful that he will emerge as the New Zealand equivalent of McCarthy in 2024.

Tupou Vai’i is another frontline contender, having been a squad regular since 2020. The 24-year-old Chiefs lock, at 1.98m (6ft 6in) and 118kg (18st 8in), is of almost identical dimensions to McCarthy and similarly rangy, mobile and athletic.

He’s quick enough to play at blindside, which he surprisingly did in the opening game of the World Cup against France, but again, Vai’i hasn’t yet shown the same destructive tendencies that differentiate the best locks in the world game and it may be that for the foreseeable future, he remains an attractive option to sit on the All Blacks bench given his ability to play both second-row and back-row.

It is the third contender, Josh Lord, who is arguably the player of greatest intrigue.

While Lord is the whole package – an effective ball carrier, a disruptor, a tackler and a presence in the contact zones as well as a connector in the wider channels – coaches are drawn to him because of what he can offer at the lineout

Lord is a different shape and style of athlete to Tuipulotu and Vai’i. He’s 2.03m (6ft 8in), 114kg (17st 13lb) and an old-fashioned, spring-heeled beanpole who is much tougher than his slight frame suggests.

His prime skill-set is his ability in the air, where he’s becoming increasingly adept at stealing opposition lineout ball. He’s also quick and while he’s not necessarily powerful, he’s all elbows and knees, making him hard for tacklers to bring down quickly.

As his long-time coach at Taranaki, Neil Barnes, said when Lord was unexpectedly called up by the All Blacks in late 2021: “He’s very explosive, and has a very good skill-set, so he has got all the attributes to make a modern-day lock.

“He doesn’t shirk anything. He’s just a good country boy that gets on with it. Physically he has got it all there to be a really good player. The thing that has impressed me is that he is a modest, rural boy who just takes things in his stride. He’s been brought up the right way, on the back of hard work.”

Josh Lord
Lord has a wide skill-set but his lineout prowess could make him an attractive option (Photo Phil Walter/Getty Images)

While Lord is the whole package – an effective ball carrier, a disruptor, a tackler and a presence in the contact zones as well as a connector in the wider channels – coaches are drawn to him because of what he can offer at the lineout and the All Blacks are taken with the idea of building the world’s best-performing set-piece pack in 2024.

Arguably, they have one of the world’s best scrums already and forwards coach Jason Ryan wants to build a lineout that can not only provide the All Blacks with the attacking platform they crave, but one that can disrupt opponents and deny them possession and opportunity.

The All Blacks’ best performances of the last few years have been built on the back of set-piece dominance and the correlation between the team playing well and the lineout functioning well is undeniable.

The stats show the lineout is the best place from which to attack and so dominance there – both with and without the ball – goes a long way towards determining the outcome of any Test.

And so it may be the relatively unknown Lord, with his natural reach and work rate, who revolutionises the All Blacks this year and gives them the weaponry they need to beat the likes of Ireland, France and South Africa.

Comments

23 Comments
J
Jasyn 155 days ago

Josh Lord and eventually Fabian Holland are the most promising, the latter isn’t eligible for almost two more seasons, while Lord is pretty lightweight and gets injured every other minute.

N
Nickers 156 days ago

I disagree with people who say Lord is too small or skinny. Look at someone like Tadhg Beirne, he is an absolute menace in all aspects of the game and would probably make the bench of a World XV. People have been saying for years that Ardie is too small to play No.8 but he gives absolutely nothing away to bigger players.

I also think Retallick was at his absolute best 5-6 years ago when he was a bit lighter. Being lanky didn’t stop him from being the best lock in the world for a time, as well as the ABs most influential player and world player of the year.

Also the game has reached peak slowness. There already is and will continue to be a strong appetite to speed the game up. Some of these massive units tipping 130kg+ will really struggle in that context.

U
Utiku Old Boy 156 days ago

I like Selby-Rickett for mongrel, good handling and lineout skills, effort and up-side. Jase Ryan’s perspective on him would be interesting. He has had some off-field issues in his distant past but, if that is well behind him, he works on adding some more bulk he could be a good option.

S
Spew_81 156 days ago

At 128kg (20st 2lb) and 2.02m (6ft 7in), Tuipulotu“. Most sources state that Tuipulotu is 1.98m, not 2.02m.

D
David 157 days ago

we have got them think barrett lord strange vai amongst others remember patrick a lock for the blues will be out for about 6 to 8 games with his broken jaw

C
Chiefs Mana 157 days ago

Looking forward to seeing Fabian Holland emerge as a leading lock in NZ over the next 3-4 years, got the size and work ethic….hopefully enough destructive qualities to be the full package.

P
Pecos 157 days ago

Nah, 106kgs (ref Chiefs website) is a lightweight in the locking department. Eat more weetbix to become a serious option. And lose the chill country boy vibe - we need a menacer.

Compare: Retallick 123kgs, Whitelock 124kgs, Barrett 118kgs, Vaa'i 118kgs, Joe McCarthy 124kgs.

Also, delete Powder Puff Paddy, has all the right dimensions but melts like a marshmallow when hit. A walking injury looking for a game to play, no less.

The search is on.

J
Joe 157 days ago

certainly the biggest problem that the AB's would have to solve. I liked Lord the best, but he's certainly not an equal replacement. Maybe we'll become aware of Samipeni Finau

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