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FEATURE 'Worst-case scenario' leaves All Blacks short of locks to face England

'Worst-case scenario' leaves All Blacks short of locks to face England
2 weeks ago

As far back as March last year, when he was first told he would be taking over as All Blacks coach in 2024, Scott Robertson could see he would be facing a particularly hard challenge in finding Test-quality players in one specific position.

With the long-serving pair of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick both having decided to head offshore after the World Cup, it was undeniable that it was going to be difficult for Robertson and his new coaching crew to start 2024 with an experienced and fit-for-purpose cohort of locks.

In February this year he was asked on Sky’s Breakdown programme if there were any positions he and his selectors felt were going to be problematic to fill.

He said: “I think we talked about locks. When you lose two you have to bring one or two back in. We’ve still got Patrick [Tuipulotu], there when he comes back. He’s a champion, when he’s on form he’s a great player.”

Patrick Tuipulotu
Patrick Tuipulotu was a likely starter for New Zealand but will now miss the England Tests through injury (Photo Phil Walter/Getty Images)

But something close to Robertson’s worst-case scenario has played out so far in 2024, and almost anything that could have gone wrong has, leaving big question marks over who the All Blacks can thrust into their match-day 23 to give them the requisite power, set-piece acumen and general grunt that they will need to take on a resurgent England.

There were four men who started this Super Rugby season who had played a Test at lock for the All Blacks – and now two of them are unavailable to start against England due to injury, while Scott Barrett hasn’t played a game of any kind since early May and probably won’t be able to ahead of that opening clash against England on 6 July in Dunedin.

Tuipulotu, who has 41 caps and had been in career-best form, damaged his knee ligaments in the Blues quarter-final win over the Fijian Drua and will be unavailable for an estimated seven weeks.

He was a certainty to start against England, alongside Barrett, with the athletic Tupou Vaa’i, who has impressed with the Chiefs all season, and who has won 22 caps, likely to be used off the bench.

This is the crux of the problem for Robertson. He’s going to be looking at utilising players with no Test experience and that’s a long way removed from how the All Blacks were operating at the World Cup last year.

That was a trio with promise, experience and enough mix of skills to give the All Blacks confidence that their scrum and lineout will deliver what they need.

But now they have no Tuipulotu, and Josh Lord, who won two caps under Ian Foster and is largely regarded as a hugely promising player to develop during this World Cup cycle, is also injured and unavailable.

Throw in Barrett’s lack of rugby, and it’s apparent why Robertson and his forwards coach Jason Ryan will be a little nervous about taking on England.

Assuming they suffer no more injuries in the final weekends of Super Rugby, it would be safe to assume that Barrett and Vaa’i will start, but the question will be, who joins them in the squad?

And this is the crux of the problem for Robertson. He’s going to be looking at utilising players with no Test experience and that’s a long way removed from how the All Blacks were operating at the World Cup last year.

Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock
With Brodie Retallick and Samuel Whitelock no longer available, New Zealand have lost 262 caps of experience (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In France, they had Barrett, Whitelock and Retallick in their match-day 23, with Vaa’i the next cab waiting outside that trio.

Barrett was the number one, and the preferred combination was to start games with him and Retallick – with Whitelock coming off the bench.

That meant the All Blacks had about 320 caps between their three locks, two of whom would be considered among the greatest in All Blacks history, while Barrett was recognised as one of the best in the world game.

It’s not just Whitelock’s ability to be in the right place at the right time and his innate understanding of the lineout that the All Blacks will miss. He brought a strong leadership style as well.

It was an incredible array of talent and experience – particularly given Whitelock’s ability to organise the All Blacks’ lineout and unpick the opposition’s – and it came with the additional bonus of being able to have all three of them on the field in the later stages of big games.

Against Ireland in the quarter-final, the All Blacks started with Barrett and Retallick, and then brought Whitelock on for the last half hour – in place of starting blindside Shannon Frizell (Barrett shifted to the side of the scrum as he’s started Tests wearing No 6) – which gave them three lineout options, massive horsepower in the scrum and three athletes who could all carry, tackle and get over the ball at the breakdown.

It was Whitelock who pulled off the last turnover to win the game after Ireland had strung together 37 phases. It’s not just his ability to be in the right place at the right time and his innate understanding of the lineout that the All Blacks will miss. He brought a strong leadership style as well.

Scott Barrett
Scott Barrett is a first-choice pick but has not played any rugby for the past month (Photo Franco Arland/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

“He’s just such a calming influence,” said Ryan after that Test against Ireland. “He can square up the room as well, he can put the room on edge when he needs to.

“He’s just honest, he doesn’t avoid things. Him and I, we’ve had some great robust discussions. He makes me a better coach if I’m perfectly honest.

“He makes sure that I’m on. I challenge him to be better. Even though he’s played 151 Tests, he still wants to be better. It’s my job to make sure that I’m doing that as well, so we can raise the bar at both ends.”

The reality for the All Blacks is that their locking options for the England series, and really for the rest of this year, are a lot less compelling than they were in 2023.

From having three world-class locks with enormous experience and leadership capacity, the All Blacks are now down to one who fits that brief, one who has played 20-plus tests mostly off the bench, and one uncapped prospect who may well be Quinten Strange from the Crusaders, who has been picked by the All Blacks before but never played due to injury.

Strange, at 27, has been around the Super Rugby block and has the maturity to suggest he’ll cope with the step up to the Test arena. He’s also been in good form.

But the reality for the All Blacks is that their locking options for the England series, and really for the rest of this year, are a lot less compelling than they were in 2023.

And it’s a bigger concern than many realise given the importance the All Blacks place on attacking from clean lineout ball off the top; the emphasis they place on having both an attacking and defensive driving maul that can score tries and stop tries; and their need for agile ball carriers to really punish teams in the middle of the field.

The All Blacks have previously paid a steep price for not building and maintaining enough depth at lock. They came into the 2008 season having lost the long-serving Keith Robinson to retirement and Chris Jack to Saracens.

Quinten Strange
Crusaders lock Quinten Strange was picked for the All Blacks in 2020 but then suffered an ankle injury (Photo Sanka Vidanagama/AFP via Getty Images)

They picked up Brad Thorn, who returned from the NRL in 2008, but when he was suspended for the second Test against South Africa that year, it forced the All Blacks to give Anthony Boric his first start alongside the experienced Ali Williams, with the uncapped Kevin O’Neill on the bench.

When Williams was forced out the game early due to a head knock, the All Blacks had a locking pair with two caps between them and they couldn’t produce what they needed to win.

The following year when Williams was ruled out for the entire season due to snapping his Achilles, the All Blacks were horribly exposed at lock. Their lineout barely functioned and they lost four of their first nine Tests, before they resorted to calling up the veteran Tom Donnelly – who wasn’t necessarily the sort of athlete they wanted, but he was a terrific aerial operator.

Robertson has seen the dangers of not having the right players with the right experience at lock and his plan will be to rebuild depth throughout this cycle and develop the Test credentials of Barrett, Tuipulotu, Vaa’i, Lord, Strange and possibly a few others such as Jamie Hannah at the Crusaders, Sam Darry at the Blues and the Chiefs’ Naitoa Ah Kuoi.

But he’ll also be eager to start his tenure with two wins – something that is going to be considerably harder to do given the injury toll.

Comments

10 Comments
R
Richie 12 days ago

Quinten Strange has had multiple brain explosions this year as well as not being able to help steady the ship in a woeful lineout. He will be a liability if given a test cap. Bring on Darry and Hannah as the next gen. I would take Walker-Leawere over Strange

R
Red and White Dynamight 12 days ago

from the Baby Blacks in 1986, the RWC’87 Champions were born.

e
edward 13 days ago

Strange has demonstrated very low rugby IQ this year…I would be looking to blood a bunch of youngsters - McWhannall, Delaney, Holland and Hannah

B
BigMaul 13 days ago

I’m not sure this is as big a disaster as this article is trying to make out. Sure, Whitelock and Retallick are huge losses. Of course they are, they’re one of the best lock partnerships ever. But NZ still have some very good options. Barrett in particular is top class and his ‘lack of rugby’ is unlikely to be a significant factor. They’ll still have a very good engine room with plenty of experience (80 odd caps) come that first test. England, without Chessum, are likely to go with Itoje and Martin - that’s a 90 cap partnership.

D
David 13 days ago

Strange selections coming up.

M
MattJH 13 days ago

Naitoa Ah Kuoi Would have to be the next man up. I don’t think Quentin strange has been as good as he was when they first picked him.
Sam Darry is a year or two away from international footy in my opinion but I thought that about Tupou Va’i when they first picked him and he grew into that jersey very quickly.

S
Scott 13 days ago

Scott Barrett and Quentin Strange played very well together in 2023 for Razor’s Crusaders when Whitelock was injured almost all of Super Rugby. Add Tupou Vaa’i and Sam Darry and that I believe will be the 4 locks vs England & Fiji.

T
T-Bone 14 days ago

Yep yep yep…takes a deep breath

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