Soaring to new heights

From the schoolboy too big to lift in the lineouts, Brodie Retallick has become close to the complete lock for the All Blacks, writes MARC HINTON.

Steve Hansen does not mince his words when it comes to assessing the potential of his premier tighthead lock Brodie Retallick. He uses the word ‘frightening’, which might also describe the first thought that runs through the mind of a defender when he looks up and sees the giant All Blacks forward steaming down on him with the ball tucked under his arm.

That’s an increasingly common occurrence these days as Retallick rounds out his game to, well, frightening proportions. Exhibit A was his dazzling performance in the All Blacks’ demolition of the Wallabies at Eden Park this Rugby Championship past. There wasn’t much he didn’t do that day as the New Zealand tight forwards chewed up and spat out their Aussie rivals.

Retallick has always been big and bulky – standing 2.04m and weighing in at around 120kg – but he’s now powered by a mighty engine that allows him to last a full Test match with unrelenting commitment and physicality, and has added a range of skills that are almost criminal in a man so huge.

In short, he’s become nigh on the complete Test lock, and alongside his similarly equipped All Blacks teammate Sam Whitelock, forms arguably the most proficient second row in world rugby. They are, say astute observers, almost the perfect tandem. The Yin and Yang of the engine room.

‘They’re mobile and more involved in the game than probably the older-style locks were,’ says former All Blacks flyhalf and Sky TV analyst Andrew Mehrtens. ‘They’re probably a combination of my old teammates Robin Brooke and Ian Jones. If you could design a lock so you’ve got the bulk and physical presence of a Brooke, and then add the skill in the lineout and mobility of Jones, you’ve kinda got the best of both worlds in both these locks.’

Former All Blacks skipper Taine Randell has been hugely impressed with the strides Retallick has taken.

‘He is a beast – the perfect foil for Whitelock. If you think of great lock partnerships you think Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield or Brooke and Jones, and he’s the Botha or Brooke.

‘I can’t remember the last time the All Blacks had someone like this. They’ve had incredible athletes but they haven’t been as talented or had as big a motor. And they’ve had guys with his size, but with nowhere near his package of skills. Not only is Retallick an excellent athlete with a high skill level but he’s a big, tough-minded and incredibly raw-boned individual.’

Adds Mehrtens: ‘He never goes backwards in contact, his ball placement is very good, he can pick the ball up off his bootlaces, offload in the tackle and does everything at 100 miles an hour.’

The thing to remember here is that Retallick is just 23 (two years Whitelock’s junior) and really just a baby in international second-row terms. He’s already tucked away 33 Tests (heading into November’s tour), and the mind boggles about what sort of numbers he might end up with.

'Just how good he’s going to get is frightening' – Steve Hansen

Hansen has been rapt with his big lock’s development, but hints at plenty more to come.  

‘He doesn’t have a lot of experience as a first-class rugby player, basically coming straight into Super Rugby and straight into the All Blacks. Every game is a learning experience, but he’s got the raw ability to cope mentally and physically, and he’s got a massive motor that just goes all day.

‘His skills are also improving all the time, and he’s just at the beginning of his career. I think we’ll see him get even better – just how good he’s going to get is frightening.

‘His big challenge is to keep improving. If he can stay motivated and keep his feet on the floor he could end up with one of the great All Blacks careers. What I like about him is he hasn’t changed one bit from the time he first came in here. He’s a level-headed young man with a massive desire to play well.’

The potential didn’t always shine so bright with Retallick, who was passed on as an over-sized youngster by Canterbury and only blossomed when lured north by Tom Coventry to join Hawke’s Bay, and then the Chiefs. Soon he was making his debut for the All Blacks and from such humble origins a star was born.

At the time, Chiefs assistant and former All Blacks guru Wayne Smith noted the qualities of a big man clearly going places.

‘He’s got a big heart, he’s hard, he’s an amazing body mover for a tall guy, he’s a tackler and he’s got a lot of power. He really nails the detail, works hard at his game, and he’s pretty special.’

Retallick, for his part, adopts a simple approach to his craft.

‘You don’t want to show the opposition you’re hurting,’ he says of his game-time mentality. ‘You know if you are blowing they are probably at least as bad, if not worse. And you just don’t want to give up. You don’t want to be the person who gets left behind in the D-line and that’s where they break. You don’t want to fall off the kick-chase and they counter and you miss a tackle.

‘I guess that’s what really drives me. I don’t want to be that person who gets left behind and causes the team to lose. That’s a big thing for me.’

Given the All Blacks have lost just one of the 33 Tests in which Retallick has featured for them, it’s fair to say he’s living up to his side of the bargain.

– This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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