‘Who the Lock’ Will Play Against Italy? That is the burning question for All Black fans, as injury affected that sides last performance–a loss to Ireland

No, it did not all rest on the locking departments shoulders; handling errors were a major factor, indecisive selections and several on-field injuries did not help the team’s cause. No, the locking department could not have made up for some poor ‘exit’ plays from within the New Zealand team’s territory. Locks are there to jump, run, tackle and act as a link in the chain. On the weekend, a chink in that chain resulted in a meritorious victory for the Irish.

So the quality of locks available to play Italy on Saturday is going to be at the top of the list for fans, commentators, and coaching staff to consider this week.

‘Who the Lock’ Will Play Against Italy?

Commentators may identify culprits, and look to lay blame, but that is not this columns role. From afar, the forwards know what happened. They failed at key points in the game: lineout, breakdown, general tackling and decision making. Sloppy for 40 minutes, the skipper pointed it out post-match and now they have moved on to Italy.

Sir Brian Lochore, the World Cup winning coach, has thrown some gasoline onto the flame. The 25 cap All Black, coach and selector has plenty of ‘clout’ when it comes to his opinion. When a man of his ilk adds a comment, you should pay to listen.

“They lacked precision, and were predictable.”

Ian Foster had no choice but to agree. He, along with Wayne Smith and all the coaching staff will have picked over the bones of Chicago, and come up with some solutions. Maybe it is the boot up the bum they finally needed [and maybe as a group will benefit from ultimately].

A loss brings the group together

Two planes landed in Rome–one had the tour party on it. Glum-faced on arrival, they had a police escort to their hotel, to face the first press conference. It was a sombre affair, with some honesty and observations given but the team now need to move forward.

On the second plane, came the rescue party. Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, (see above) followed by Seta Tamanivalu en-route from London. Each man will enter the group and find it otherwise in a ‘state of loss’. Some have experienced very few losses–Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Waisake Naholo, Ofa Tu’ungafasi each have had careers which matched the success of the All Blacks. *Wyatt Crockett has still never tasted defeat!

Even Brodie and Sam can count losses on just the one hand, so the feeling is new to many in the party. The coaches will put the men under pressure, as much as they will themselves. Kieran Read will take much of the weight on his shoulders, but the senior leadership group will have a say in how they ‘get themselves back up on the horse’.

Expect plenty of group bonding, but they know it is not all work. Sightseeing, games and entertainment should also be on the schedule. It will satisfy their needs as people–as much as athletes. Similar to the Buenos Aires trip, relaxation is an essential part of being a team.

Selection policy questioned

For the first or second time only, Steve Hansen got it wrong. Usually allowed the benefit of the doubt when the team is winning; like in Sydney 2015, he is being quizzed over ‘who and why’. Was Jerome Kaino adequate to fill the locking position? Probably, but the same can be said about Ben Smith at wing or centre–adequate, but not a specialist. Last resort but not a natural.

Scott Barrett
Scott Barrett of New Zealand hands off CJ Stander of Ireland (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Scott Barrett (above) scored a try on debut and did very well. All the better for it–and with his brother they now hold a unique record: the only pair of All Black siblings where one scored a try [Scott] and the other converted it [Beauden]. That aside, he came on for 35 minutes and did the position justice. So should he start against Italy?

Yes. But no disrespect to the Azzuri, they will be a handful. Every player selected needs to be of International class (of course). Barrett is an NPC winner, a Super Rugby semi finalist and truthfully, Hansen should have afforded him more credit in Chicago. But what is done, is done. The selection for Saturday’s match will be known by Thursday (EU time) and the opposition will be ready. Will the All Blacks make the right choices this week?

‘Who the Lock’ Will Start?

Names in the mix are Retallick (when given medical clearance) Tuipulotu, Barrett, with Whitelock still to recover from a high-ankle sprain. The other options are Kaino, Liam Squire, Steven Luatua or [an outside chance] Vaea Fifita could be invited to step up.

Ian Foster told media “Brodie’s come in and he looks like he’s in pretty good shape. Has ticked all the boxes to date. And now he’s got to go through a couple of days of full training and we’ll make the final decision then.”

The lack of clarity in Chicago may pair Retallick with Tuipulotu for the first half at least. Then either a Barrett or Squire/Luatua/Fifita are asked to handle the second half. Substitutes are often under a little more pressure than experienced members. Some are nervous, others take it in their stride–but any International sportsperson will tell you that they need to be exposed to that intensity.

Steven Luatua
Steven Luatua of the New Zealand All Blacks (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Holding men like Barrett, Squire, Luatua (above) or even Fifita back now just to ‘play in’ a returning lock will hinder their development. Sure, Brodie or Sam need to wind-up before facing a resurgent Ireland side, but the fact is you only have opportunities like Italy v New Zealand every few years. It should still be used for player development primarily.

Italy test used for Player Development

A win might well be assured. The Italians play with heart, but their men are not hardened like all the touring All Blacks are. A Damian McKenzie or Liam Coltman would benefit too, and if Hansen makes up to six changes, then it should be looked on as a positive reaction.

If he goes back to his frontline, starting XV it might be a sign of fear which Ireland and France could take it as a sign of insecurity, and predictability. This might be the time to say “who can show us what they’ve got?” before the heat goes up a thousand degrees in Dublin next weekend.

And that will be the first time since 2011 that the World Champions have been ‘under the pump’. An interesting Northern Hemisphere tour awaits fans and observers alike.

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Several All Blacks, head coach and the team have been nominated in several categories for the annual International awards. Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles the latest men to challenge for the supreme men’s player award–previously won by Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read are previous winners of this prestigious trophy.

The World Rugby Awards will take place in London on 13 November. For more information on the World Rugby Awards, visit www.worldrugby.org/awards

“Main photo credit”

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