Escaping the Rat Race

Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick could re-establish themselves as the world’s premier locking combination now that both men have had the extended break they needed. Gregor Paul with the story.

As the test against the Pumas in Bankstown slipped away from the All Blacks last year, it was impossible not to think how differently things might have been had Brodie Retallick been on the park.

The giant lock is the forgotten man of New Zealand rugby. A rare force of nature whose ability to hurt opponents and transform any game in which he plays has been sorely missed.

Retallick wasn’t available for a single game in 2020 as he was on sabbatical. But the truth is that Retallick has been missed by the All Blacks since mid-way through 2017 when he embarked upon a run of injuries and bad luck that prevented him being the player we all know he can be.

From barely suffering any kind of injury in the first five years of his career, Retallick suddenly fell apart after the British & Irish Lions tour. A body which had once seemed indestructible, was having bits broken off it almost every other test.

He missed the end of year tour in 2017 and then he missed much of the 2018 Rugby Championship with a broken bone in his chest. When his shoulder was dislocated against the Boks before the World Cup it was touch and go whether he would be fit for the tournament.

He made it to Japan but he was short of football, just as he was short of football on the end of year tour in 2018. On that trip he played one astonishingly brilliant game against England at Twickenham but couldn’t back it up the following week in Ireland and that has been the story of Retallick for the last three years. We haven’t seen him at his consistent brilliant best because he has been on-off, on-off with injury. He didn’t have a run of games to build his form.

He’ll be back this year after a club season in Japan and the expectation is high that 18 months off rugby is exactly what he needed.

The Retallick we once knew is the Retallick who will be back – stronger, fitter and refreshed and the All Blacks will be a different team as a result.

At his best he brings not only lineout possession, destructive ball carrying and aggressive cleanout work, he also brings the intangible qualities of presence and edge.

Retallick has a mindset of making others know he’s there. He demands more out of his team-mates and lifts them to the next level. At training he’ll be the guy whose intensity everyone else notices and has to react to and that’s the quality the All Blacks were so glad to have back at the World Cup in 2019 when Retallick was finally able to resume training before the last pool game.

“He has decided to be an annoying guy again so that's a good sign,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said. “He tells me he has been counting the days down. He's excited and so he should be.”

The All Blacks needed Retallick’s presence this year as the prevailing feature in all six of their tests was the amount of action off the ball.

It didn’t reflect well on either Australia or Argentina that they were so determined to niggle the All Blacks, but it worked nevertheless. Both teams were able to consistently play New Zealand off the ball and get away with it.

Referees didn’t appear to think policing it was within their jurisdiction and almost anything went – with the game in Brisbane a particular travesty. And while it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen, the All Blacks were poor at dealing with being distracted like that.

Too many players got caught up in it. They reacted or retaliated which made things worse. The All Blacks conceded penalties, made poor decisions and lost their focus at times.

As coach Ian Foster said after the season had finished: “The area we’ve got to work hardest on is when teams distract us. In both Brisbane and Parramatta we struggled with some refereeing, particularly at scrum and breakdown, and didn’t make great adjustments there.

“We also enabled teams to niggle us off the ball and that resulted in some patterns and behaviours in our attack game where we got blinkered and really went to the wrong places. We spent a lot of time after that Argentina game working hard on what we thought were the cues for us getting into that state and learning what the opposition and other things do to get us out of kilter.”

Get Retallick back and inevitably teams will feel less inclined to play the All Blacks off the ball and if they do, he’ll deal with it effectively.

Retallick will be back from Japan in May and is expected to be declared available for all tests this year.

“If you look at people who come back from a long-term injury, they normally come back in a really good physical and mental space and play really good rugby and that's because they have been away from the physical side of the game and also because they are mentally fresh.” – Sam Whitelock

San Whitelock hasn’t suffered the same run of bad luck as Retallick in the last few years, but he’s been just as affected by the crushing nature of the modern game.

Too much rugby in the last World Cup cycle robbed us of seeing the player we all knew. It wasn’t just the rugby either although that was the main cause of Whitelock’s form decline from about 2017.

There were too many demands placed on him – having to captain the Crusaders in three long but successful campaigns while also standing in for All Blacks captain Kieran Read five times in that same period.

By the end of 2019, Whitelock was mostly considered a busted flush – a once great player now on the inevitable decline. The dynamism that marked his career in the early years was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t stealing lineout ball anymore – not like how he used to, and he was trundling around the field at one pace.

While he’d signed a dour-year contract to stay in New Zealand, his future seemed destined to be watching the likes of Patrick Tuipulotu and Scott Barrett speed past him in the All Blacks pecking order.

The defining image of 2019 had been of Whitelock, pained and exhausted, his socks down his legs, realising the terrible mistake he'd made by shoving Owen Farrell after the All Blacks had won a critical penalty with 13 minutes left of the World Cup semi-final.

Richie Mo'unga was getting ready to boot it in the corner, when the big screen showed the replay and the penalty was reversed. The moment had gone and just as Whitelock had saved the All Blacks with one memorably lineout steal in the 2015 World Cup semi-final, he'd now effectively killed their hopes with one memorably dumb act in the 2019 semi-final.

The sense of Whitelock being a man whose career was in reverse, didn't just come from that one act. The decline could be traced back as far as the Lions series in 2017 when Maro Itoje owned the second two tests.

There was the game in Ireland 2018 as well when James Ryan was all rage and power that Whitelock couldn't match and so when the All Blacks trooped off the field at Yokohama having been beaten up by England's pack, it felt like this had been a long time coming.

At 31, it really wasn't feasible to imagine Whitelock could arrest his career decline, send himself in an upward trajectory and return to being the force he'd been between 2012 and 2015.

Whitelock became a victim of his own excellence and durability. And to some extent he was a victim of New Zealand’s lack of depth at lock.

With Retallick injured as much as he was, Whitelock had to keep playing and was an ever present in the national team and too much responsibility and too much travel drained him.

All those collisions just about broke him and he spent the last six months of 2018 playing with a groin injury which meant he could never actually run at top speed.

We saw an athlete with nothing left to offer but it wasn’t that at all. He was simply tired and in need of an extended break.

That’s what became apparent this year. Whitelock led a vastly improved lineout effort in 2020 and was the engine in a scrum that roared for most, nearly all, of the season.

When the All Blacks needed a ball carrier he was there, maybe not punching the big metres like Ardie Savea but doing his bit nevertheless, to drive his 121kg frame into the defence and sap just a little bit more out of them.

His work rate never dropped and his influence was significant and of all the crazy things that happened in 2020, the rejuvenation of Whitelock was among the least expected.

“I think, and this is opening a massive can of worms, when you get breaks in your career and whether it is injury enforced or selection enforced or whatever it is pretty cool,” he says.

“If you look at people who come back from a long-term injury, they normally come back in a really good physical and mental space and play really good rugby and that's because they have been away from the physical side of the game and also because they are mentally fresh.

“That was what I learned in Japan – there were different challenges and I was away from a leadership role. I was just part of a team. Yes, I was calling lineouts, but that was a pretty stock standard sort of thing – not worried about how the team is tracking. It was different just being an everyday team member and then coming back into the Crusaders and not having to worry about that sort of stuff either and playing more of a supporting role. I enjoyed that.

“Lockdown was great to not have to bash yourself training-wise. I just took the time off and then in the last few weeks I ramped things up. I think it was better to be underdone.”

Covid ended up giving him a new lease of life. He stayed in Japan after the World Cup to play a season for Panasonic, but it was cut short. He effectively had six months off after the World Cup and only played 15 games this year and only had to travel as far as Australia.

Rest rebuilt him just as it will rebuild Retallick and maybe the Whitelock-Retallick combination has a couple of years of magic left in it. Maybe they will own the 2023 World Cup in the same way they did the 2015 tournament.

That will be a hard thought to reconcile as it's been a long time now since Whitelock and Retallick were the two players everyone was talking about after an All Blacks tests. It's hard to even remember just how good they were in their pomp. But they were brilliant as former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said in early 2018.

“They have already been incredible,” said Hansen. “They are the best locking pair New Zealand has had and that is the biggest compliment you can pay them.

“I guess you don't hear so much about Sam but that's only because Brodie is so good at what he is doing. Sam is not so far behind and sometimes not even that and the beauty with this pair is you know what you are going to get from them.

“I think what they have shown is that locks can play differently to how they used to. If you look around the world it seems most teams are changing the sort of athletes and players they have at lock. Ireland have a couple of good ones, so too do England and Australia are working on it too.

“Wales have got guys who are trying to play with the ball and South Africa have got big locks who can play.

“I think what those two [Retallick and Whitelock] have done is force people to look at how they are playing the game and teams have asked their locks to do the same.

“It's a bit like basketball where the big guys just used to wait for the ball to come to them but then one team starts using them to do more and everyone starts doing it. There has been a realisation around the world that we can up-skill these big athletes.”

It’s interesting to ponder as right now the likes of Itoje and Ryan are being viewed as the hottest locking properties in the game. They will no doubt play for the Lions together this year – if the tour goes ahead – and deepen their standing as the best in the world.

But it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see them regress in the second half of the cycle. Too much rugby is going to blunt those two and the months after the Lions tour could be the point they start to fade.

They will come back to their clubs, barely rest and then just watch – there will be a slow decline as the collisions start to take hold of them. They will lose something over the last two years of the cycle – the explosiveness, the pace, the edge…call it what you will, but just like Retallick and Whitelock the game will grind them down.

It might seem mad at this moment in time to suggest that the last great act of New Zealand's greatest locking combination is still to come. It might be even more difficult to believe that by 2023, Whitelock and Retallick will again be the world's pre-eminent second-row pairing.

But that’s exactly what could happen.

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Last  updated: February 2021