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OPINION: Who should start at lock for the All Blacks?

Updated: Apr 28

Written by Max Sharp.


Since succeeding Steve "Shag" Hansen as the All Blacks' Head Coach, Ian Foster has given test caps to six different locks across the 21 tests played during the period of 2020-21. All six of these individual players have played minutes in both the 4 and 5 jerseys, while Scott Barrett played some minutes at number 8, in Perth, during a test match against Australia in 2021.


Shortly after this article is scheduled to be published, Sam Whitelock will be returning to Super Rugby after missing over a month of rugby due to his broken finger; while Brodie Retallick will likely return to playing in mid-May after recovery from a broken wrist.


The All Blacks' Lock Depth Chart (2020-21).


The Depth Chart illustrates that Whitelock and Retallick remain Foster's first-choice combo, as Whitelock takes up 30.5% of the chart's minutes, with Retallick taking up 23% of them. Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu have both played massive minutes as well, while Tupou Vaa'i and Josh Lord have become the first two All Blacks born in the 21st century.


As the All Blacks' tight-five forwards all struggled in 2021, we're going to do a deep dive into the relevant statistics of these players and decide on a locking combo that could possibly perform even better.


JOSH LORD


21 years old

83 minutes played (2.5% of the Depth Chart)

2 test caps

6’8 and 112kg


LORD'S 2022 SUPER RUGBY STATS:

6 games played

334 minutes played

72 metres run

4 defenders beaten

30 carries

28 passes

4 offloads

50/54 tackles (93%)

6 turnovers won

Josh Lord of the Chiefs jumps in a lineout. Photo: Max Sharp.


Lord first trained with the Chiefs in the 2020 pre-season, when he was still 18 years old. Though Pari Pari Parkinson, Quinten Strange and Mitchell Dunshea would have been more deserving of an All Black cap in 2021, Foster chose to look to the future and made in excellent call in capping Josh Lord.


The youngster's immense promise has been turned into making him a regular starter for his Super Rugby club in Retallick's absence, his offload-heavy game and high turnover count have made him very fun to watch.


While Lord isn't yet ready to become a regular starter at test level, we could very easily see him reach 100 tests later on if he avoids injury.


TUPOU VAA’I


22 years old

389 minutes played (11.6% of the Depth Chart)

11 test caps

6’6 and 118kg

VAA'I'S 2022 SUPER RUGBY STATS:

5 games played

337 minutes played

118 metres run

5 defenders beaten

2 clean breaks

33 carries

22 passes

2 offloads

42/47 tackles (89%)

3 turnovers won


The rise-to-prominence of Tupou Vaa'i has been seriously exceptional. Vaa'i, who was the Head Prefect of Wesley College in 2017, rose through the ranks playing for Taranaki and finished the 2020 season as a regular starter for the All Blacks and the Chiefs, despite not having a contract ahead of 2020.


This made him the first All Black born in the 2000's, but the most impressive thing there is the fact that Vaa'i is a forward.


Though the 22-year-old is yet to reach 400 minutes of test rugby, he's been biding his time learning and has now emerged as the finished product. If there's a time to promote Vaa'i ahead of the World Cup, it's now, he'll make an even better stat board with even more world-class ball running.


Eden Park, the Blues' and Patrick Tuipulotu's home ground. Photo: Max Sharp.


PATRICK TUIPULOTU


29 years old

507 minutes played (15.1% of the Depth Chart)

41 test caps

6’6 and 120kg


Patrick Tuipulotu has not played Super Rugby in 2022, but remains eligible for the All Blacks. Tuipulotu, who was the Blues' captain from 2019-21, has been signed through with the All Blacks and the Blues through to 2025; but he was given a sabbatical clause in the long-term deal. He is on sabbatical now, rather than later; hence why he has played for Toyota Verblitz and not the Blues this year.


It's been a very long time since Tuipulotu has had a serious injury and he's evolved from a promising ball-in-hand forward, to an experienced player that makes intelligent decisions; he is also the most prolific try-scorer out of the current All Blacks locks. If he remains injury free, we could see a 34-year-old Patrick Tuipulotu playing in the 2027 Rugby World Cup.


SCOTT BARRETT


28 years old

576 minutes (17.1% of the Depth Chart)

48 test caps

6’6 and 111kg

BARRETT'S 2022 SUPER RUGBY STATS:

6 games played

430 minutes played

67 metres run

2 defenders beaten

33 carries

22 passes

72/78 tackles (92%)

5 turnovers won


If you were going to pick an All Black second-row combo based on form, then it would easily have been Barrett and Vaa'i as the two locks, until a particular incident occurred.


Scott Barrett and three of his four brothers have become professional athletes; though Kane, Beauden, Scott and Jordie Barrett have all been red-carded at some stage of their career. Scott Barrett's second career red card was only recent; this was for a shoulder charge to the head of his former Crusaders teammate, Alex Hodgman. Barrett's shoulder charge not only saw the Crusaders lose to the Blues, but saw him banned for four weeks.


As he is a repeat offender, one must seriously assess the risk of selecting Scott Barrett, the Crusaders' captain, for the All Blacks again. Until this offence, he had probably been the best-performing lock of the season (based on statistics). But will the utility value he brings off the bench, outweigh the risk of another card-able offence?


BRODIE RETALLICK


30 years old

772 minutes played (23%)

92 test caps (1 as captain)

6’8 and 123kg

RETALLICK'S 2022 SUPER RUGBY STATS:

5 games played

308 minutes played

65 metres run

1 defender beaten

27 carries

20 passes

4 offloads

41/41 tackles (100%)

5 turnovers won


Unless the Chiefs make the final of Super Rugby Pacific, Brodie Retallick probably won't surpass 10 games for his club this season. You could look at the scenario with optimism since he hasn't missed a tackle in 2020, while time off with a broken wrist means Retallick can still train and avoid fatigue.

Retallick's ongoing battle with injury, outlined on YouTube (right).


However, in a YouTube video for The Black Jersey; I did outline a map of his serious injuries from the last 4 years; he has missed more than 100 weeks of the last 400 due to injury or COVID-19 restrictions. Until being injured, Retallick had been playing well, this latest broken bone proves that it's time to stop over-relying on him; especially he has had a far worse run of missed games than Sam Whitelock, who has just had the odd head knock here and there.


SAM WHITELOCK

33 years old

1026 minutes played (30.5% of the Depth Chart)

132 test caps (2nd on All Blacks All-Time list, 14 as captain)

6’8 and 117kg

WHITELOCK'S 2022 SUPER RUGBY STATS:


3 games played

Sam Whitelock in 2019, captaining the Crusaders. 211 minutes played

Photo: Max Sharp 29 metres

1 defender beaten

18 carries

11 passes

1 offload

35/38 tackles (92%)


Sam Whitelock has played the 7th-to-most tests in World Rugby's history and remains the fastest player to reach 100 tests, Whitelock played his 100th just only 8 years and 2 months after his test debut.


Whitelock was able to play those first 100 so quickly due to a lack of long-term injuries across his career. Though he has had a few concussions and is about to return from a broken finger, that's not a bad job at looking after your body. Whitelock is no longer world-class, though he is still playing very well, having made 86 tackles for the All Blacks last year.


Sam Cane's competition for a start with Dalton Papali'i means that Whitelock may be retained as the All Black captain; after a high tackle percentage and quite a lot of carries from just 3 Super Rugby games so far in 2022. Based on how Whitelock was playing before breaking his finger during a Crusaders training session, he will likely continue to be a regular starter for the All Blacks and could break Richie McCaw's record for the most-capped All Black.



The YouTube video version of this article, as displayed above.


The Conclusion:


We all know that Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have still been able to train; as the nature of their injuries are not detrimental to their training. However, Retallick is likely going to be short of match fitness ahead of the mid-year series against Ireland. That begs the question of who will partner Whitelock in the second row.


As Tupou Vaa'i and Scott Barrett have been in-form throughout Super Rugby Pacific, Vaa'i wins the number 4 jersey due to having better on-field discipline. Barrett's history with red cards creates some hesitancy, as does Josh Lord's lack of experience. Patrick Tuipulotu is match-fit, so bringing an experienced player off the bench to cover Vaa'i makes total sense; this would be a great way to readjust him to playing in New Zealand after the one-year deal in Japan.


With Tuipulotu on the bench, the rookies won't be in too much of a baptism of fire against Ireland, while this mid-year series will give time for Barrett and Retallick to work their way back into the team.

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