The keys that are locks

PapanuiPirate Roar Pro

By PapanuiPirate, PapanuiPirate is a Roar Pro

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    A while back I wrote a piece on the back row in the context of Australia’s recent difficulty in balancing those positions. This time I want to take a look at lock forward and how the position is fast becoming the bellwether position in the modern game.

    On nomenclature
    I will be using the term lock throughout this article as opposed to second rower. This is the slightly more old-fashioned term to which I am partial – I also prefer other old-fashioned terms like halfback, first five eighth and second five eighth. It also makes for a witty article title.

    The remarkable history of the unremarkables
    Lots of words are used to describe locks: hardworking, big engine, toiling, workmanlike, tall. None of these terms are what you would call glamorous, and that seems to fit with the general perception of locks around the world. They are just there. You can’t imagine a rugby game without them, but at the same time you can’t often describe seeing much of them in a given game.

    Their work happens in dark places in the middle of scrums, mauls and rucks. Their open play game is normally limited to solid defence in the tight exchanges and grafting carries. For a long time the best compliment you could give a lock went something like this: “Worked really hard, took lineout ball well”. Hardly waxing lyrical.

    Yet despite the seeming anonymity of the position a remarkable number of great players have played the position. Locks feature highly in the lists of greatest players in many countries. John Eales is a household name not only in Australia but all over the rugby world. Martin Johnson is revered across England.

    The combination of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield is still mentioned in hushed tones of awe. Willie John McBride is considered one of the greatest Lions to ever don the famous red jersey. And finally there is Colin Meads, a man whose place in the pantheon of rugby legends is without question and who is considered by many to be perhaps the greatest competitor of the amateur era.

    (Credit: Simon Bruty/Allsport)

    A job to be done
    I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and say that the role of the lock is probably the least changed since the development of the 3-4-1 scrum in the middle of last century. This has led to a fairy prescribed archetype for body type and style of player with limited variation. Unlike many other positions on the field, locks are pretty much the same world over.

    So what is the lock’s role? First and foremost locks are set-piece players. While not quite as dedicated to set piece as front row forwards, the first attributes on any selectors list are lineout production and scrummaging.

    Being a team’s primary lineout target, locks are pretty much always the tallest players on the paddock, and they always have been. Before lineout lifting was introduced, height was even more crucial, though players did tend to be somewhat shorter in the amateur era. It is not uncommon for modern test players to be north of two metres tall, and anything shorter than around 195 centimetres is seen as a detriment.

    Their role as the primary drivers in a scrum requires powerful driving legs married to a stabilising core. While not normally competing with props for bulk, locks are frequently the largest men on the paddock.

    To complement their set-piece role, locks are also required to do huge amounts of work in the tight. It is not uncommon to expect locks to have the highest ruck involvements of any player on the field, including back row players. This is due locks providing the muscle at the breakdown, clearing out opposition bodies, protecting the ball and providing the impetus for turnovers by driving through vulnerable rucks.

    They are also the driving force in mauls, often being the ‘driver’ egging on their players from lineout drives, while also providing the strength to stop opponent drives.

    (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

    Locks tend to have the second highest tackle counts, often making the majority of forward-on-forward tackles near the breakdown. They are also called upon to make metres in traffic, working their team over the advantage line with powerful, leg-driving carries.

    Basically a lock’s job is to do the hard slog work.

    As I have mentioned, locks the world over tend to be cut from the same cloth with very little difference in terms of philosophy by region or country. There is, however, a balance that tends to be struck within locking partnerships. That is the tighthead and loosehead lock roles.

    Basically tighthead and loosehead locks have the same job with slightly different priorities. As the tighthead side of the scrum is normally the side that comes under more pressure, it has become common for the stronger, heavier lock to pack down behind the tighthead prop.

    The loosehead lock meanwhile tends to be a little lighter and often a bit taller and takes the role as the primary lineout target. These divisions often play out in open play as well, with tighthead locks clearing more rucks and loosehead locks making more tackles.

    Sometimes the tighthead lock will carry a little tighter while the loosehead lock will carry more like a blindside flanker. Some great examples of the tight/loose locking combinations are Botha and Matfield along with Brad Thorn and Ali Williams.

    (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    Why are locks suddenly such a big deal?
    Something a bit weird has happened over the last couple of years. Where normally people would be talking incessantly about the ‘glamour’ positions like openside flanker, number eight, first five-eighth or fullback suddenly everyone is talking about locks!

    New Zealanders will bend your ear about how Sam Whitelock and Brodie Rettalick are the bee’s knees. Maro Itoje is quickly becoming the most recognisable name in rugby, and he is just one of three English locks people won’t stop talking about. Eben Etzebeth has had people staring at his biceps for years and Adam Coleman is being touted as a Wallabies captain.

    How did this happen?
    How did the quiet, hardworking giants of the rugby paddock suddenly become some of the most influential players going around?

    I once read an unusual statistic that locks have the most head-to-head involvements of any position on the field. Essentially that means that as a lock you are more likely to come up directly against your opposite number than any other player on the field. This means that if one team has an obvious advantage in this position, it quickly gives them an edge in the tight exchanges.

    With quick ruck ball becoming such a key part of attack across the world, having locks who can shift bodies powerfully and quickly while also getting over the advantage line and recycling quickly is crucial to owning the momentum of the game.

    Locks have also begun to add extra little touches of skill to their core roles, and this is having an oversized impact on games. Itoje is one of the best fetchers in rugby at the moment, which is not something that usually said of a lock. This opens up his back row to focus more on their defensive duties, making England (and Saracens) a particularly difficult team to break down defensively.

    (Jason O’Brien/Getty Images)

    Brodie Rettalick’s ball playing skills in traffic have completely changed the All Blacks approach to forward play, with Scott Barrett not far behind. The addition of soft hands by big men in the face of the defence opens up little holes for forwards to punch through, adding metres to tight carries and ensuring front-foot ball.

    The modern conditioning of players has probably had the biggest impact on locks in terms of their production across a game than any other position. Their core roles are exhausting ones, with a requirement to make a large number of involvements in a game. As locks have become fitter they have also become far more influential on a game. Fitter locks with bigger engines are frequently playing the full 80 minutes and making meaningful contributions throughout the whole game.

    Finally, with defences becoming so effective during phase play, most scoring opportunities these days come off set pieces. Locks are critical to success at both the scrum and the lineout. Their ability to secure the ball at the lineout and deliver it quickly is perhaps the most important aspect of lock play in the current era.

    With the whole width of the field and large numbers of players to work with, attack from a clean lineout is gold to modern teams, and it often rests on the locks to set the whole machine in motion.

    Conclusion
    Locks have come a long way from being the lumbering giants of the rugby paddock. They are now expected to be involved in so many facets of play, and teams with multi-skilled, athletic locks are reaping the rewards at set piece and around the park.

    The era of the lock has just begun, and long may it reign.

    What do you think, Roarers? Am I mistaking the importance of the tall timber in today’s game? Are there some other examples of great locking partners that show that these guys were always the core of any successful team?

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    The Crowd Says (57)

    • January 12th 2018 @ 7:31am
      Sherry said | January 12th 2018 @ 7:31am | ! Report

      First rate, PP. The glamour spot may yet return to the eightman in world rugby. But for now, the locks have it. R&W are the top combo with EE and Lood not far behind. Big difference with Itoje and Lawes is that both are still candidates for
      6 if injuries dictate a move. Kraus is currently on the outs with Eddie. As for extreme height being a requisite, not if you’re as athletic as Brad Thorn. Aussie legend, John Thornett (played in the mid fifties to mid sixties) was no more than six one and he played some tests in the second row. But that was before the majority of rugby players got big and muscular. Who were the fastest locks? I’d say Brad who could run down a ball carrier from behind, and Steve Cutler who had some track experience in the 800.

      • Roar Guru

        January 12th 2018 @ 7:44am
        Sam Taulelei said | January 12th 2018 @ 7:44am | ! Report

        One lock who surprised me with his leg speed was All Black Gary Whetton. Radike Samo is very quick as is probably any number of Fijians that played lock.

        • Roar Pro

          January 12th 2018 @ 12:54pm
          PapanuiPirate said | January 12th 2018 @ 12:54pm | ! Report

          Have you seen the insanity that is Leone Nakarawa?? Nearly 2m tall, pace to burn and silky hands in and out of the tackle. The most bonkers Lock to have played the game, just an absolute freak.

        • January 12th 2018 @ 2:00pm
          richard said | January 12th 2018 @ 2:00pm | ! Report

          I remember Whetton v Scotland in the quarters of the 1987 RWC.Made one break down the side that left a group of scots backs in his dust.You are right,Whetton was deceptively quick for those times.

        • Roar Guru

          January 12th 2018 @ 5:26pm
          jeznez said | January 12th 2018 @ 5:26pm | ! Report

          Eales was fast when he needed to be, made some amazing cover tackles.

          In the ’91 world cup final he made a tackle on the 22, got off the deck to run down Rob Andrews who looked set to score for all money.

        • January 12th 2018 @ 5:44pm
          Clelo said | January 12th 2018 @ 5:44pm | ! Report

          Radike Samo has played on the wing briefly, as a replacement, for the Wallabies. Remember his try against the All Blacks when he ran half the field to score under the posts, pretty slick!

    • Roar Guru

      January 12th 2018 @ 7:48am
      Machooka said | January 12th 2018 @ 7:48am | ! Report

      Cracking read PapanuiPirate… your heading says it all!

    • January 12th 2018 @ 8:20am
      Brisbane Boys said | January 12th 2018 @ 8:20am | ! Report

      Always have been important great teams always have great locks. Look at the AB’s in the last five years with and without Brodie R. There numbers are still good after the last Nortern tour but prior to that they were not great.

      • Roar Guru

        January 12th 2018 @ 5:30pm
        jeznez said | January 12th 2018 @ 5:30pm | ! Report

        That is my experience as well. I really rate the article but my one slight bone of contention is that I don’t think the importance has evolved that much. They have just been relatively rare to find the exceptionally good ones.

        As many posters are pointing out we seem to have an amazingly rich group around the globe at the moment. Perhaps that is the big change of professionalism. That they are being given the conditioning and environment to produce more of the top flight exponents of the position than we have seen in the past.

        I think once you have the height and build to build from as a base, lock tends to be one of the positions that is most coachable in terms of strength, fitness and technique to really nail the key attributes to become outstanding.

    • Roar Rookie

      January 12th 2018 @ 9:08am
      ChrisG said | January 12th 2018 @ 9:08am | ! Report

      Good article. Still not sure if the lock is the key or the key is the lock though!!!

    • January 12th 2018 @ 9:27am
      Lance Nash said | January 12th 2018 @ 9:27am | ! Report

      Great article. Recall Colin Meads talking about Jonah Lomu. “We had big, fast men back in the day. We called them locks”.

    • Roar Guru

      January 12th 2018 @ 9:30am
      RobC said | January 12th 2018 @ 9:30am | ! Report

      • January 12th 2018 @ 2:13pm
        Adsa said | January 12th 2018 @ 2:13pm | ! Report

        PP an excellent read, thank you. When I think of really great teams their is always a ying and yang with the locks – a barger / bruiser and a classic jumper/ bean pole (tight & loose head). Eales and Giffin or Whetton and Pierce. Great teams have always had a balanced lock combo.

        And RobC – thanks for the blast from the past.

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