The lock leads an undistinguished and unappreciated life, a little like a bass player.
A lot of their important work is almost invisible as they shove away buried deep in the scrum, or at ruck and maul.
While it is true that in the lineout they soar (due to this new-fangled lifting business – it won’t last, I tell you), like a brief bass run in a piece of music (for example the bass at the start of ‘Dogs’ on the musically psychopathic Pink Floyd album Animals), and may attract momentary attention, even there they often have their job usurped by a backrower, like the way many guitarists seem to think they can play bass at a pinch.
Apparently almost anyone can do the lock’s job and if they have a role in the loose, then might not a backrower do this faster and probably better as well?
The Waratahs vs Chiefs match offered an opportunity to test this idea.
It was played at a fairly high tempo and in an open style, where set-piece was mostly used by both sides to restart play and get the ball moving As such, I won’t use this match as a vehicle to examine the set-piece aspects of the lock’s work in detail. I suspect that the two semi-finals will provide a better opportunity.
The Waratahs opted for five backrowers and no true locks. Jed Holloway and Ned Hanigan have both played most of their rugby as backrowers and although Holloway has done good things at lock in the last two seasons, the selection of Hanigan as well created a rather lightweight locking combination, albeit a quick one. Apparently the coaches are lead guitarists in the Sydney set up.
The Chiefs picked two genuine locks, by way of contrast. There was the late-war version of Brodie Retallick, returning from yet another major injury, somewhat like the Messerschmidt 109 in 1944 – still dangerous and built on a sound frame, but people are starting to comment that he is getting closer to the end. What a career it has been, however. Selected with him was the exciting prospect Tupou Vaa’i.
The lead guitarists got the fast, open game they wanted but the rhythm section got angry and for once it seems the bass took the lead. Retallick seems to have taken over the mixing desk as well, because for all the movement made by the lead guitarists in light blue, the mix had his bass riding high over everything.
The Waratahs were in trouble almost from the start of this match and one of the things that stood out was the way they were utterly dominated in the collisions, both at the tackle and at ruck and maul. Also of some surprise to me was the fact that they mostly refused to put many players into the ruck, even when they were not dominant in the collision.
In attack I am guessing this was because they wanted to move the ball quickly and thus keep players out to enable better continuity. However, for continuity you must first keep the ball.
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Retallick stood out in all aspects of a lock’s work in the loose. He put on two crunching tackles that will probably make highlights reels for the season. In both cases the hits were perfectly legal and they put the Waratah player hard on the ground. The recipients of Brodie’s physical ‘welcome to country’ were Waratahs backline decision-makers and nailing these players is always good, for obvious reasons.
Both hits had added value as they were also during the time when the match was still alive as a contest, albeit one where the Waratahs were being bested.
In the loose neither Waratah lock made an impact with their tackles. Neither missed many tackles, but I noticed how often Hanigan was tackling legs and not in the driving way, but mostly just grabbing them. While this brings the carrier to ground, if there is no force being applied they will tend to fall forwards and in a match where the Waratahs rarely seemed to apply the old ‘one high, one low’, simply ceding momentum on all occasions.
Nor were NSW putting players in to pounce on the carrier on the ground and when they did, they were rarely surviving the clean out. Holloway attempted some choke tackles but pulled off only one notable effort, in the 65th minute, when the game was done as a contest.
They all matter, of course, but impact earlier would have been a bonus.
Both Waratah locks were anonymous with ball in hand. At this stage of his physical development, Vaa’i still looks a little spindly (as he weighs about 118 kilograms it is deceptive, but he is still learning to use his body), but he made a fine carry in the first half, hitting the seam between two forwards defending and making ground accordingly. If you don’t have the heft physically of Retallick, smart lines can make up for a lot.
In the modern game, locks have to work hard maintaining continuity in ways they rarely used to. In the fourth minute, the Waratahs were on the charge off lineout ball. The first carry made little impact and the ball was carried into contact a second time with the carrier taken in a choke tackle midfield, and a second Chiefs player closing in to assist.
Hanigan had the moment to smash into the contact, provide momentum and secure possession. The ball needed to be brought to ground before a maul could be called and to enable the Waratahs to then drive over the top.
Unfortunately, Hanigan had overrun his carrier and so he went in from a side angle, upright, and he grabbed at Bryn Gatland, pulling and dragging with only mediocre effect, while the Chiefs continued to monster the unfortunate and isolated sky blue intruder.
It was a piece of unfortunate timing combined with a poor decision as to the entry point and target, and it continued thus all game.
Hanigan’s tendency to use his arms to pull and drag at opponents in the ruck and maul is not a good sight, probably whatever number on the jersey, but for a lock it is simply a negation of the role. Watch Retallick and you will see shoulder hit after shoulder hit (with arm, of course).
Hanigan has been an easy target for much rage in the past. He was brought into Super Rugby and then Test rugby way too young. He always looked like a prospect, with his athleticism and big frame, but he had no time to grow into his body and learn to use it effectively.
A stint in Japan seemed an odd choice, as mobility was never his issue, impact was and for that I would have thought the options should have been New Zealand, South Africa or Europe.
There is a lot to like, he is still young, but he has a lot of development to do.
It probably won’t surprise to note that Retallick also provided trademark moments in cover defence, where he chased down younger and – by the number on their backs – quicker men. In the 42nd minute he brought down the Waratahs’ No.8 in cover (although later this man had his revenge, running in a fine try with both Chiefs’ locks struggling in his wake), having done something similar in the 26th minute when he took down a Waratahs back, again in cover.
Watching Retallick move from ruck to ruck is to watch efficiency and purpose, and a really good way to study the lines that a genuine lock should run.
Vaa’i got through his work competently for the most part. He looks to have the instincts for the position. He was replaced in the 57th minute, injured himself in the 27th minute, and was out of play for several phases after a poor effort to impose himself physically on a ruck. This incident underlined for me that he is still a young man with a lot to learn about how to use his body. That will come. What I see, I really like.
I would be cautious about picking him to play the more physical Test sides at this stage of his career, but time is on his side. I will be really looking forward to seeing how he goes next week against the mighty Stonkin’ Sam Whitelock and the always-friendly Bulky Barrett (Scott genus).
One of the things I love about Retallick is his lineout aggression. He is a superb defensive lineout player and in a game where lineouts mostly went with the throw, he achieved one of the few genuine defensive wins, at 59 minutes, when he used his body expertly to legally contact Holloway in the air, jolting him and causing Holloway to lose control and muff the transfer as he hit the ground. The ball spilled forward and Retallick helpfully continued his path through the lineout, barging into Holloway.
You can argue about the legalities, but the referees mostly look for the defender hooking an arm in or over the jumper and dragging him, or for one of the lifters being taken out by a defender. A body check in the air may sometimes be penalised, but at worst it will tend to be a 50-50 proposition, unless it is repeated.
This was great play and it highlighted the lock using his body well to create disruption, in addition to doing the whole leaping thing. Observation and experience teach me that these small things come from instinct, time and training in the position.
Holloway jumps well – as does Hanigan – but he simply doesn’t have Retallick’s height, physical impact (you could say bulk but it more than that), or smarts. There is no shame in this – Retallick is one of the greatest locks I have seen.
Holloway is no slouch but he still looks like a converted backrower playing as a lock.
I have to note that Hanigan and Vaa’i were replaced in the second half, while the old stager Retallick was still on at the end and at 75 minutes he made a sequence of effective tackles and ruck involvements.
This moment and this game say that while a backrower might be able to cover a locking position, truly good locks beat converted backrowers most days. Truly great ones hand out a lesson.
If this was Brodie Retallick’s equivalent of a 20-minute bass solo a la Stanley Clarke in the late 1970s, it was a damned good one.
A lot could be written about the bass guitar technician named Luke Jacobson and the two roadies in the centres, who all contributed hugely to outplaying their opposites and producing the collision domination that marked the game.
There wasn’t much to be seen of the guitar players’ amps by the end of the session.