There’s a cliché that splits rugby men into two types: piano players and piano pushers. It’s a distinction that looks dated in the modern game. Most professional players are just as comfortable writing a symphony as they would be lugging your forte up the stairs.
Athletic, skillful and abrasive, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are two such specimens that personify New Zealand’s current global dominance. Likely to start their seventh consecutive Test together at lock on Saturday in Sydney’s massively intriguing Bledisloe opener, they will be pivotal figures as the All Blacks seek an 18th victory in a row.
While the blockbuster exploits of Julian Savea and Kieran Read may hog headlines, Whitelock and Retallick consistently deliver. In June’s whitewash of England, they were prominent in the instants that defined each contest. These three clips demonstrate the world-leading force Retallick and Whitelock have become.
First Test: Immense engines
At 12-12 with 11 minutes left, Stuart Lancaster’s charges stood close to conquering Eden Park. New Zealand had been oddly pedestrian, their back row outplayed. But the All Blacks don’t panic when a game goes to the wire. They remain calm and retain structure.
Though England are on the front foot, Whitelock (circled in red) and Retallick (in blue) inject enough line-speed to halt Joe Marler behind the gain-line. Whitelock is part of the initial tackle alongside Jerome Kaino, but stays on his feet to preoccupy Ben Morgan, who is first to the ruck. Morgan slips off an attempted clear-out, meaning Whitelock can join Retallick as a guard next to the subsequent breakdown.
Retallick’s opportunistic gather and 50-metre gallop are clearly exceptional. However, his body angle, fixed firmly on Ben Youngs, and discipline – staying behind the back foot despite temptation to pile in – are just as impressive. Whitelock reciprocates on the blindside, forming an arrowhead. As ever, the All Blacks’ most eye-catching moments are based on exquisite technical fundamentals. Following Retallick’s spectacular breakaway, that does not change.
Here we see the aftermath of Marland Yarde’s fantastic cover tackle. Nigel Owens is already playing advantage to New Zealand, but Whitelock (in red again) summons the energy to sprint half the field in support – remember, we are over an hour into proceedings. A stooping hit on England’s wing accentuates the offence as well.
Even if the attack comes to nothing as the ball is recycled, Whitelock is not finished and remarkably has enough air in his lungs to advise Owens that a yellow card is the correct course of action. Like it or not, dialogue with referees is a big part of rugby awareness. England did come back to 15-15 later, but Yarde’s sin-binning eventually cost them.
Second Test: Composure and class
Again we have a transition from defence to attack that comes as a gut-wrenching sucker-punch. England should have been out of sight by half-time at Forsyth Barr Stadium. As it was, New Zealand held on and reached half-time just four points adrift.
Swooping on Billy Twelvetrees’ errant offload, Retallick exhibits ambition to use the knock-on advantage. Besides anything else, picking up a loose ball at full pace requires flexibility and dexterity. Having managed that with ease though, the Chief does not fret. He knows the opportunity will come on the next phase, so an uncomplicated carry will do – possession is key at this point. And so it proves.
Retallick’s quick thinking allows New Zealand to set up a ruck on the right (circled in blue) and spread play left. Whitelock (circled in red) is caught on the front line but trusts his skills and the communication of those outside him, who have seen two England front-rowers, Rob Webber and David Wilson (circled in yellow), exposed out wide. He picks up Ben Smith’s poor pass and send one 15 metres to Dane Coles. Aaron Cruden is released and the rest is a straightforward mismatch.
Third Test: Hunting as a pack
So far, the contributions of Retallick and Whitelock have been fairly obvious. This longer clip allows us to dwell on some less conspicuous aspects in the build-up to New Zealand’s third score, which killed off the contest. As well as being superb ball-players, this Kiwi duo is also versed in the underrated quality of simply being awkward to play against.
England’s lineout was a reliable platform for most of the series, but Retallick and Whitelock spoil things here. The former envelops jumper Tom Wood while the latter fights through the maul with Read. Youngs is rushed and puts Freddie Burns under pressure, who can only kick out on the full.
New Zealand are markedly more efficient. Fast lineout ball was a devastating weapon for them in this early blitz, and the pattern continued. With Whitelock loitering as a decoy at the tail, Retallick rises and taps back to Aaron Smith. It isn’t tidy, but it is quick – open play really was England’s enemy.
Savea is sent into midfield, where Whitelock leaches on and blasts over. Retallick follows through, taking it upon himself to personally eradicate the threat of Courtney Lawes, England’s most damaging counter-rucker. The upshot is a pristine platform for Smith and, a phase later, a try for the scrum-half to punish a disorientated defence. It is a case of unfussy graft leading to something stylish.
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Behemoth Wallaby Will Skelton is apparently the next second-row superstar and will attract plenty of press attention before this weekend. However, at just 23 and 25 respectively, Retallick and Whitelock have many miles to run and are already almost certain to be remembered as great All Blacks. They can complete another chapter in Sydney.