8 May 2012

Steve Hansen's Thorny Issue - Replacing an All Black Legend

How on earth do you replace Brad Thorn? That will be the first question raised by Steve Hansen and co when he and his selectors meet to draw up their first All Blacks squad of the year. It's an unenviable task for a very strict task master, but one that will need to be met head on if the All Blacks want to continue on their success from the World Cup .

Many All Black stalwarts have left since Hansen was given control of the All Black reigns, but crucially, there were already natural successors lined up in most of those positions. In fact in some cases, the tyros weren't sticking to the script and were ousting the veterans before their time was up.

Natural Successors

As fullback Mils Muliaina planned his glorious walk into the sunset, retiring from International rugby after more than 100 caps for the All Blacks, up stepped Hawkes Bay sensation Israel Dagg who snatched his starting spot. You can add youngster Andre Taylor too as another star who is likely to challenge for the full back position. There is something of Christian Cullen about him in the clever running lines he picks and the way he runs onto the ball at full tilt. His positional change from the wing has added another dimension to his game.

Cruden lighting up the Super 15
Furthermore, when people were wondering how Carter would ever be replaced during the World Cup, Aaron Cruden suddenly got his mojo against the Aussies and showed that their is life after the King (even if the King's not quite dead yet). Cruden's all round improvement in the last year has been mesmeric to say the least and it is not totally out of the question that if Carter fails to fully recover from his injury problems, Cruden may be the starting flyhalf for the All Blacks against Ireland during their 3 tests in June.

Jerome Kaino has left too and he arguably led the defensive charge for the last few seasons. So much so that he was nominated for IRB player of the year (and to my mind should have won it). But with seasoned All Blacks Adam Thomson, Liam Messam and Victor Vito lurking in the shadows, one would think that they should be able to cope with his departure.

Replacing a gnarly veteran

Those three key positions therefore look like they have ready made replacements. With gnarly veteran Brad Thorn leaving the pack though....it feels different. The challenge is far more imposing. How do you replace such a physically influential character? His game was so distinctive and so tough. You noticed when Thorn wasn't playing and you got the feeling the opposition breathed a sigh of relief too. Much the way All Black fans would if Springbok enforcer Bakkies Botha was not included on the team sheet.

Ali suffering with the Blues
For those looking ahead, Jarrad Hoeata had been mentioned in some quarters as a player able to provide the physical grunt vacated by Thorn's absence in the locking department, while others believed 'Comical Ali' Williams may regain his form for a talent stacked Blues prior to this year's campaign. Neither in truth as yet come to fruition (although Hoeata should be given time).

Tom Donnelly and Jason Eaton were outside bets due to their previous experience on the international stage, and therefore could be considered a safe pair of hands. If anyone could get the best out of Donnelly too , one would bet on his new Crusaders coach and former All Black lock Todd Blackadder. Despite this though, none of the above were or are certainties for selection.

Have the All Blacks unearthed a gem?

As always though the Super 15 seems to pop up new names every year. The conveyor belt of talent is endless. The first few weeks of Super Rugby were dominated with the talk of a new beast for South Africa who was a potential replacement for outgoing legends Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. The giant was Stormers' lock Eben Etzebeth.

Chiefs enforcer Brodie Retallick
However since then young Brodie Retallick has grown into the season and potentially overshadowed him. The Chiefs hard man has been in dominating form this year in the Super 15.

Unlike other young locks which seem to burst on the scene though, Retallick likes to play it tough in the tight...just like Thorn.You won't seem his boots dancing along the touchline. Retallick is definitely not a show pony.

In the last 10 years or so we've seen Chris Jack, Ali Williams, James Ryan, Jason Eaton and Sam Whitelock all burst onto the scene playing a athletic wide roaming game. Naturally their games tightened as their careers went on, but in youngster retallick the All Blacks seem to have unearthed someone who can step into the tight role needed in internationa rugby straight away, leaving  Sam Whitelock free to roam and use his athletic ability around the field.

Ruling Supreme in he Super 15

His stats are unbelievable; both in the air and on the ground. He clears rucks like a man posessed and his overall work-rate is just phenomenal. He has made 129 tackles thus far for the Chiefs after 11 rounds, leaving him as the 6th best tackler in the competition. What makes this stat all the more impressive though are the names which surround him.

Matt Todd, Marcell Coetzee, David Pocock, Heinrich Brussow, Michael Hooper, Siya Kolisi &  Liam Messam are just a few of the notable names on the list. Noticed any thing about those names? They all belong to loose-forwards. Of the top 15 for successful tackles made this year, Retallick is the only player who isn't a loose-forward. That is a stat which sure to garner a wry smile on Hansen's face.

Retallick to wear black again?
Retallick has ruled supreme in the air too. The Chiefs have one of the slickest line-outs in the competiton and surprisingly once more, it is Retallick who is leading the charge for them. One might have thought that his captain Craig Clarke would have assumed most of the responsibility in this area given his experience in the role at this level, but it is Retallick who has taken control.

He has successfully grapsed the ball 36 times this year. That leaves him 7th in the Competition and comfortably New Zealand's second best lineout forward behind Adam Thomson, who is extremely useful at blindside flanker. Having said that, he does not call the lineouts and that will be something to take into consideration.

We will have to wait and see if Hansen takes the conservative route in his first year in charge of the All Blacks and picks some safe hands but don't be surprised to hear Retallick's name read out either. He will be an All Black...it's just a matter of time.


  1. I think we are really seeing the value of Brad Thorn in the scrum this year. Owen Franks simply isn't the scrummager he was without Thorn behind him. This further enforces the importance Thorn has to any team.

    I'm hopeful Retallick can be the guy to take Thorn's spot. He has the size and work ethic. Apparently he's incredibly fit too (see player profile: http://rugbyfix.com/brodie-retallick/ apparently Retallick broke Thorn's yoyo test record!)

    One thing is for sure, everyone is going to need to step to replace Thorn, not just one guy.

  2. Yes I don't disagree with you there.

    I still believe Franks is a teriffic scrummager, but certainly not as devastating as with Thorn providing the grunt behind him.

    As we have seen with Thorn's move to Leinster, he can even make Irish props look world class...and that's a tall order!

  3. Haha. Yes, he's certainly going well for Leinster. The guy's a legend.

    Yep, hopefully Franks can still continue his impressive start on the world stage

  4. By the way. Really enjoyed having a read of your site today. I think yours is one of the best rugby sites I have found on the net so keep it up.

  5. wouldn't surprise me if Donnelly is the starting lock for the Blacks, but Retallick deserves to be in the squad. I didn't realize his stats were so good.

  6. @ Ned. No i wouldn't be surprised either Ned. Donnelly was strong when he was a start for the AB's a few years ago. Another positive for him is that he calls the lineouts and is a pute lineout forward which may help him given that he would most likely be partnering a relatively inexperienced Sam Whitelock.

    @Mike. I was talking about your rugby fix site...not mine! In case there is any confusion.

    1. Thank you! Your site's a hidden gem. Rugby is clearly a passion of yours too. Keep up the great work!

      Good call on Donnelly guys, even though he hasn't had the best season so far with injuries, etc. Eaton might be one to watch too, because he has been playing the tight role pretty well lately.

  7. Great line up. We will be linking to this great article on our site. Keep up the good writing.