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.

    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 @ 2:50am
      Johnno said | January 12th 2018 @ 2:50am | ! Report

      The two Lions locks were instrumental in the drawn series vs the AB’s, AWJ and Itoje. AWJ as he is family known for never has two bad games in a row, he was good in game 2 and 3 as was Itoje.. Locks do so much grunt work and key at line out time and pushing in the scrum..

    • Roar Guru

      January 12th 2018 @ 3:37am
      Kia Kaha said | January 12th 2018 @ 3:37am | ! Report

      Thanks, PP.

      I marvel at the modern lock’s work rate. It’s not just doing the engine work at set piece but all the defensive and offensive work they get through.

      I remember the black-and-white footage of Pinetree striding in the open with the ball in one hand as if it were a pine cone but I can’t ever envisage him getting back in the last line of defence as Brodie Retallick did for the Chiefs in Fiji last year.

      I liked the purity of the line out jump. The Kamo Kid was a firm favourite growing up but I enjoy the all-round athleticism of the modern locks.

      I’m not sure about their roles as being the most static but I’m going to mull that one over in my mind. I’d say for now halfback is the least changed from the amateur era. Will be interesting to see what people think.

      • Roar Pro

        January 12th 2018 @ 11:53am
        PapanuiPirate said | January 12th 2018 @ 11:53am | ! Report

        Not a bad shout with halfback Kia. The focus on a halfbacks kicking game has really evolved in the last 20 years, and I don’t think that support play through the line break was a considered a core halfback role before professionalism. I’d also love to know when the halfback sweeper defence become the norm.

        But broadly I agree, the core roles haven’t changed markedly.

    • Columnist

      January 12th 2018 @ 4:35am
      Nicholas Bishop said | January 12th 2018 @ 4:35am | ! Report

      Very nice PP. Simple to understand but gets to the core of the changes in the role of a second row – and pleasantly unpretentious with it… Great stuff!

      • Roar Pro

        January 12th 2018 @ 11:41am
        PapanuiPirate said | January 12th 2018 @ 11:41am | ! Report

        Thanks NB, appreciate the feedback. I’m in a bit of a phase at the moment of looking at broad trends in the forward pack. Easy to be unpretentious when really just highlighting what has happened over a period. Going to try write something about the changes and approaches to the carry into contact next. That might be a bit more contentious!

    • January 12th 2018 @ 5:07am
      Jeff dustby said | January 12th 2018 @ 5:07am | ! Report

      Would love them to be in jumping contests again rather than lifting

      • January 12th 2018 @ 5:27am
        English twizz said | January 12th 2018 @ 5:27am | ! Report

        Maro itoje probably dreams off that too since he jumps by him self half the time

      • January 12th 2018 @ 5:33pm
        Clelo said | January 12th 2018 @ 5:33pm | ! Report

        Jeff – Having been a jumper all my career under the old rules I am happy the lineouts have been cleaned up partly through lifting and partly better refereeing. Two of the guys who could potentially hit you are now involved with the jumper so that keeps them occupied. I don’t believe the role of the lock has changed that much from those considered great exponents of yesteryear except that the game has become so much quicker. I am in my mid 60’s and in the ‘good old days’ we jogged from ruck to scrum to lineout. That is no longer acceptable. I remember when one of the great qualities of rugby was, there was a position in the team for any shape or build. That no longer exists, I always said the difference between league and union was in league you had to be an athlete but that has become a requisite in union, hence the development that PP talks of. I recall as I was finishing playing the trend was there but we had not gone to a flat defensive line like league and I’m still not convinced that was a good transition. Having said that we would be unlikely to the see the sort of tries scored like Fifita against Argentina because as a No 6 his head would be buried somewhere a la Reuben Thorne. The jury is still out!

    • Roar Guru

      January 12th 2018 @ 5:52am
      Harry Jones said | January 12th 2018 @ 5:52am | ! Report

      Thank you for praising lock forwards. England seems awash in big lumpy locks (Launchberry, Krause) AND sleek second row athletes (Lawes, Itoje). NZ has the great proven combination. If Levanini would calm down, he’s wildly athletic. SA pumps them out like a factory gone mad: EE, PSDT, Lood, Mostert, Ruan Botha, JD Schickerling, and 4-5 abroad (Bekker, Kruger, Roux, Willemse, du Plessis). OZ has a real stud in Coleman. AWJ is a legend. The Gray brothers are superb. Ireland’s Toner is an old school loose-head lock prototype. Amazing times.

      • January 12th 2018 @ 6:47am
        FunBus said | January 12th 2018 @ 6:47am | ! Report

        It’s certainly a golden age for locks. I don’t think I can think of another period when there were so many class ones around at the same time.

      • Roar Pro

        January 12th 2018 @ 11:44am
        PapanuiPirate said | January 12th 2018 @ 11:44am | ! Report

        How can we not praise these noble giants? To stand in their shadow is to be at once blessed by their might, and reminded of one’s own normality of altitude!

        • Roar Guru

          January 12th 2018 @ 3:45pm
          Harry Jones said | January 12th 2018 @ 3:45pm | ! Report



          I remember meeting Bok lock Hennie Bekker when I was 11.

          He was the tallest human I’d seen.

          His son became the tallest Bok ever.

          • January 13th 2018 @ 6:24am
            Ben said | January 13th 2018 @ 6:24am | ! Report

            Hennie Becker…wow..bring back memories.
            I was at secondary school and was an usher Athletic Pk 2nd test ABs v Boks 1981.
            Because of all the trouble the Boks stayed the night under the grandstand.
            We had to be there at 0900 and conducted regular “emu parades” of the field to ensure no objects were on there.
            Suddenly the biggest man i had ever seen had to stoop as he exited the stadium onto the field. Becker saw this gangly schoolkid staring at him and with his big mostachioed face gave me a wink.
            How the heck could we beat them with a guy this big!!
            Of course we did lose that match.
            He towered over Frank Oliver who played his last test that day.
            Both gone now to play each other in heaven.

    • Roar Guru

      January 12th 2018 @ 7:21am
      Sam Taulelei said | January 12th 2018 @ 7:21am | ! Report

      Great article

      You could probably draw a correlation between the different law changes and evolution of professional rugby to the adjustments in skills and work rate for locks.

      The number of breakdowns in the game today compared to the first decade of professional rugby and amateur rugby are significantly higher. Conversely the number of setpieces has fallen.

      Defensive systems have improved significantly therefore the demands on your biggest men to carry, bend or break the line as well as defend it has increased.

      NZ more than any other country in the past 5-7 years has demanded more from their locks outside their core duties so we’ve seen improvements in general passing, passing in and before contact, acting as first receivers as well as linkmen out wider.

      • Roar Pro

        January 12th 2018 @ 11:48am
        PapanuiPirate said | January 12th 2018 @ 11:48am | ! Report

        Thanks Sam.

        Yes the increase in the number of breakdowns and the tight defences have certainly required Locks to step up. England asks a lot of it’s Locks in the tight, even more than NZ. South African Locks are unique in their ability to go on barnstorming run in slightly wider channels. Each more extreme than what Kiwi Locks tend to do . The New Zealand philosophy tends to be “Do More Things Better”, requiring not quite the same focus on particular skill sets and a greater breadth of ability. Seems to be working well thus far!

      • January 16th 2018 @ 2:32am
        UKKiwi said | January 16th 2018 @ 2:32am | ! Report

        Wondering about this comment Sam

        ‘NZ more than any other country in the past 5-7 years has demanded more from their locks outside their core duties so we’ve seen improvements in general passing, passing in and before contact, acting as first receivers as well as linkmen out wider.’

        Has NZ demanded more of it’s locks? Or, has the retirement of B Thorne and Ali Williams which opened the door for Retallick and Whitelock both of whom bring those skills to the table? I suspect it’s the later and this pair along with Etzebeth and, more recently, Itoje who have set the new benchmark in a lock’s required skills.

        • January 16th 2018 @ 11:44am
          Neil said | January 16th 2018 @ 11:44am | ! Report

          Very interesting comment, UKKiwi. Hadn’t considered from that perspective but you may indeed be correct.