Lock selection not completely clear-cut

Sam Whitelock has started in eight of the All Blacks' last nine tests and came off the bench in...
Sam Whitelock. Photo: Getty Images
The second row has never been lacking firepower in the black jersey. From Ron King through Tiny White, Colin Meads and Peter Whiting, the All Blacks have
always had options in the locking department. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn looks at the All Black’s World Cup options.

Really, the locking selection should be straightforward for the All Blacks this year.

In Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, the national side has two of the best locks in the world and two of the best seen in the black jersey.

Whitelock is dripping experience, knows all the ins and outs of the game, and is a dependable guy, He hits rucks, wins lineout ball and goes for 80 minutes.

Retallick, if anything, is slightly better than Whitelock.

He can pop up anywhere, has great ball skills and awareness and never stands back from anyone. He knocks people over and seems to have a motor which never slows down.

Backing those two up is the ever-improving Scott Barrett. Barrett started off slowly but made strides last year when he took a real step up in the French series and has stayed at that level ever since.

He hits rucks hard and moves bodies. His skills have improved as has his work in the lineout.

Backing him up is Patrick Tuipulotu while Jackson Hemopo can also fill in at lock. Luke Romano is still lurking.

So there it is - straightforward, really. Except it isn't.

There are issues - not massive issues but they could balloon into some real worries.

First we have the shoulder injury to Retallick. He will be selected for the squad and should be able to play some time at the tournament. Gone are the silly rules which ruled out Mike Brewer in 1991 because of some prerequisite about being fully fit weeks out from the tournament.

But Retallick has missed plenty of game time this year because of injuries and, no matter how good a player, it is all about being sharp. Sharpness comes from playing games. Not sitting in the stand.

This will be the third World Cup for Whitelock, who has been turning in performances which are as solid as ever.

The batteries in the Whitelock engine though were dead flat at the end of last season. At times this season he has looked more exhausted than Jacinda Ardern's travel agent. He should be able to get through although the legs are no longer young.

As for Barrett, his discipline, or lack of it, is an issue. It is not just the red card he picked up in Perth. The big man gives away plenty of penalties. He is all knees and elbows and they get in the wrong place which could be costly in a close game at the World Cup.

With the Retallick injury, Tuipulotu is probably going to win selection ahead of Hemopo, as a specialist lock is preferred.

Tuipulotu played well in the win at Eden Park last week and he needs to keep to that standard. There are accusations of a soft underbelly about Tuipulotu - a massive man who could be much more of a weapon.

Hemopo is not as big but hits hard and plays a rugged game. He has come a long way since playing on the back of the scrum for Green Island.

But like then, he will now not stand back for anyone.

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