Bolstering locking depth key

Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have been pillars in the locking positions for the All Blacks...
Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have been pillars in the locking positions for the All Blacks over the past eight years. Photo: Getty Images
If there's one area that will sit high on Ian Foster and John Plumtree's immediate agenda next year it's bolstering the All Blacks locking depth.

Expect 2020's new era to usher fresh faces into the second-row.

The All Blacks have been operating with limited locking resources for some time – four is barely enough – and with Brodie Retallick absent from the New Zealand game for the next 18 months, stocks are set to be severely examined.

Unlike South Africa, where ridiculously sized humans seem to sprout from every vineyard and braai, New Zealand doesn't tend to produce locks at the same rate.

Skill and speed over size is often our way.

Outside backs burst on the scene every year to create an abundance of options that push established figures toward overseas riches well before their cash in date is due.

Loose forwards develop at a similar, regular rate – so much so that the All Blacks often attempt to convert these players into second-row options.

That's because when it comes to locks, talent starts to thin out.

Sam Whitelock and Retallick have set the benchmark for the All Blacks since 2012 but as Bob Dylan said, the times they are a changin'.

Retallick, the world's best lock when fully fit, will play under Wayne Smith at Japanese club Kobe as part of his sabbatical deal and, therefore, won't be available for the All Blacks until mid-2021. He leaves a gaping hole for the Chiefs and All Blacks.

Whitelock has also skipped the Super Rugby season to significantly boost his salary in Japan but his claims to replace Kieran Read as captain will see him return for the All Blacks next series against Wales.

Whitelock and Retallick have their long-term sights set on the 2023 World Cup but there must be a realisation from Foster and Plumtree that either might not get there.

Retallick is three years younger than Whitelock but he has suffered numerous injuries over the past two years which allowed Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu chances to step up and develop.

Barrett in particular applied pressure for a starting spot last year and his status is now such that he will assume the Crusaders captaincy next season. The 26-year-old is only now reaching his prime.

Tuipulotu, too, enjoyed his best form last season and must now stamp his authority as a senior figure within the Blues to demand a start for the All Blacks.

Underneath this bracket of established test locks is where concerns arise. Alternatives remain in the early stages of the grooming process and the player drain is beginning to bite which threatens to expose gaps in the production line.

Jackson Hemopo played five tests over the past two years but he and fellow Highlanders and New Zealand Maori lock Tom Franklin have departed to Japan.

Likewise, the sizeable presence of the Hurricanes' most experienced lock, Sam Lousi, has been lost to Welsh club Scarlets.

Vaea Fifita featured at lock for the Hurricanes under Plumtree but his 11 tests came in the loose forwards and his skill set appears much more suited to the six or eight roles.

No matter who fills the void, this season will pave the way for the All Blacks to blood fresh faces at lock and a steep learning curve may await some.

The jump from Super Rugby to the All Blacks is no more testing than for those in the tight five where, traditionally, athletes in this area don't find their feet until their mid-20s.

Pari Pari Parkinson, at 2.04 metres and 119kg, appears the most promising prospect.

The 23-year-old progressed from Auckland to the Tasman ranks before debuting for the Highlanders in 2018 and touring with New Zealand Maori. He has rare size, athleticism, skill and now needs to consistently perform to take the next step.

Parkinson's Highlanders team-mate Josh Dickson, Crusaders lock Quinten Strange and possibly Isaia Walker-Leawere from the Hurricanes are other potential prospects but options for Foster and Plumtree appear largely limited.

The opening is certainly there for someone to burst through.

Unfortunately for the All Blacks, tall timber doesn't grow on local trees.

New Zealand Super Rugby locking stocks:
Hurricanes:

James Blackwell
Kane Le'aupepe
Isaia Walker-Leawere
Liam Mitchell
Scott Scrafton

Blues:
Patrick Tuipulotu
Josh Goodhue
Gerard Cowley-Tuioti
Aaron Carroll
Jacob Pierce

Highlanders:
Pari Pari Parkinson
Josh Dickson
Manaaki Selby-Rickit
Jack Whetton

Crusaders:
Scott Barrett
Luke Romano
Mitchell Dunshea
Quinten Strange

Chiefs:
Naitoa Ah Kuoi
Michael Allardice
Tyler Ardron
Laghlan McWhannell

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