The New Zealand Herald
Locks hold key to title prospects
Retallick and Whitelock deliver week in, week out with unparalleled skills and ability to influence their teams
Super Rugby tends to be portrayed as a competition all about the playmakers. The teams that have won have all had a quality first-five and the dots have been joined to say that’s the key to success.
It probably is, but it is by no means a case of being the only thing teams have to get right, and as Super Rugby heads towards more inclement weather, there are two men who are going to have an increasingly big say in which team is crowned champions.
They are Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, easily the two best locks in world rugby and players with a stunning array of skills and ability to influence.
Looking around the world, there have been a significant number of locks touted as potentially extraordinary.
Plenty have been hyped but as quickly as they come, they go. England’s Joe Launchbury was supposedly going to be the man to put Whitelock and Retallick in their place. He’s barely half the athlete the two All Blacks are. Eben Etzebeth came through the age grades with Retallick, and while the Springbok is a quality player, he’s not been able to exert remotely the same influence.
The latest to rise and fall is England’s Maro Itoje, who looked a genuine star when here last year with the Lions and is now just another big lug offering standard service thump and bump duties.
And it is seeing how others have fallen which illustrates just what miraculous machines Retallick and Whitelock are.
These two deliver all year, every year. And what they deliver is more than high quality graft of the basic type.
Retallick was quite brilliant against the Blues last week. The Chiefs needed leadership and presence and he brought both. When there was a stubborn Blues body holding up things at the breakdown, it was Retallick who did the removal work. When the Chiefs needed lineout ball, Retallick got it.
When they needed their scrum to finish off the Blues, Retallick provided the grunt. And when they needed a touch of magic to rekindle their spirits after half an hour of frustration when they could not score, Retallick crashed through the midfield and flipped a Sonny Bill Williams-style offload to Anton Lienert-Brown.
It’s not possible to place a value on a player who, at 2.04m and 122kg, can play with such energy and skill as well as attend to the core roles.
It’s not possible to understand what it means to effectively have a loose forward in a lock’s body with a first-five’s skill set.
Whitelock is much the same and the other trait both he and Retallick share is their consistency, aided immeasurably by their durability.
Some All Blacks in the past were notoriously slow to build into the season, seemingly holding back until mid-May when they would finally look like they were fully engaged.
Not these two. Whitelock, New Zealand’s Player of the Year in 2017, was in damaging form from the first game of this season and he produced the defining moment in the first round against the Chiefs when he took a pass on the touchline and backed himself to crash through tackles and score.
That’s what he’s added to his game in the past 18 months — a dynamic edge to his ball carrying and also greater effectiveness at the breakdown where he is just as likely as any of the Crusaders’ loose forwards to pinch a turnover.
It’s sometimes hard to fully appreciate the range of skills Retallick and Whitelock bring to the Chiefs and Crusaders respectively and their influence in driving performance.
Part of what makes it hard is that they operate in the tight places where it’s best not to look too hard and partly, they have been doing it for so long now that much of their work is taken for granted.
But it shouldn’t be. No other locks in the world game deliver as much or for the same duration and both will be instrumental in determining the outcome of Super Rugby.