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2021 Season Review - Locks

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Written by Max Sharp.

The tight-five forwards in the All Blacks may have struggled against other tier 1 nations during 2021, but lock truly is a position where New Zealand has a lot of depth. The likes of Pari Pari Parkinson, Quinten Strange, Josh Dickson, Mitchell Dunshea, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Dominic Bird, Bryn Evans and Luke Romano, the latter three of which are former All Blacks, will all feature for Super Rugby teams in 2022, yet don't appear to be on Ian Foster's radar right now.

The All Blacks' Locks Depth Chart from 2020-21.

Foster has done an excellent job on the locks' depth chart throughout 2020-21, he knows which player is where in his pecking order, based on the minutes they have played in either the 4 or 5 jersey.

With the 2023 Rugby World Cup nearly 18 months away, Foster is likely to select four locks in his 33-man squad for the World Cup, as Steve Hansen did for 2019.

If the squad was to be named today, Foster would likely take Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick as his first-choice locking combo, while Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu would be two experienced players combining as his second-choice locks, Barrett would of course back-up Whitelock and Retallick off the bench frequently.

While I vehemently disagree with the selection of Retallick, who appears to have lost some of his body muscle percentage since moving to Kobelco Steelers, Japan, for a two-year stint, World Cups are usually won by experience. Four experienced players selected at lock would provide the pack with a lot of seniority.

Sam Whitelock, although no longer the world's best lock, is still playing very good rugby, even after his 33rd birthday and 132 tests - 7th on World Rugby's all-time list for most caps. Whitelock, barring injury, will probably finish his career as the most-capped All Black of all time, becoming the second player to break the barrier of 150 caps, after Alun Wyn Jones.

Sam Whitelock leads the Crusaders out against the Hurricanes in 2019. Photo: Max Sharp.

Scott Barrett had somewhat of a form resurgence in 2021, having missed a significant portion of the Crusaders' season due to a foot injury in 2020. Barrett has finished what would possibly be the best year of his life, his wedding, first-born child, another Super Rugby title, a debut for Taranaki, made for a very successful year. Barrett will play his 50th test for the All Blacks in 2022, so expect his form to be even better, he will be coming into the season full of optimism.

Although Patrick Tuipulotu, the most prolific try scorer of the current All Blacks locks, can now call himself the Blues' most successful captain since 2003, his stocks may be on the way down. Tuipulotu had only played 6 of the All Blacks' 10 tests by the end of the 2021 Rugby Championship, while only two of those six tests were starts.

Breathing down Tuipulotu's neck, are Tupou Vaa'i and Josh Lord, the fifth and sixth locks capped by Foster since his reign began.

On his test debut, Vaa'i, a very athletic lock, became the first All Black born in the 21st century, although he debuted at 20, he did not do the unthinkable - debut as a teenager. Vaa'i made his first test start one week after his debut, notching up three more starts in 2021. Although Foster did not have enough faith in Vaa'i to give him game time during the mid-year tests, or bring him off the bench against Ireland, he looks certain to capitalise off the lessons he has learned under the tutelage of Whitelock, Retallick, Barrett and Tuipulotu, the latter of whom was his childhood idol. With three tries from 11 tests at just 21 years old, Vaa'i could easily reach 100 tests.

Josh Lord, who was a call-up for the 2021 end-of-year tests, was a player I first noticed when Taranaki won the Ranfurly Shield in 2020. I could easily see him as a future All Black at the time, I just didn't expect the young Chief to debut so soon!

Although Lord will find game time hard to come by in 2022, his test debut was a mark of the All Blacks' greatest strength, a succession plan. Lord is a long way from the finished product, but at 6'8 and 112kg, Lord has a lot of potential. By picking Lord over many other locks who were in better form during 2021, Foster has sacrificed the here-and-now for the All Blacks' long term health; he has paired the first-ever All Blacks born in the 21st century, with four veterans who are all certain to pass 50 tests, if they have not already.

While lock is by no means in a perfect situation, it is a position which Ian Foster knows what he's doing with. There is still room for improvement in this position, the axing of Retallick would perhaps create the perfect mix of youth and experience in this position.

Locks Grade for 2021: B

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