Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Big men build fear factor

Brodie Retallick has made his presence felt this year. Photo / Getty Images
Brodie Retallick has made his presence felt this year. Photo / Getty Images

Whatever else happened against England this morning, one unlikely outcome was the All Black pack failing to bring some physical presence to Twickenham. They may have their scrum issues at the moment - but at the breakdown, tackle and general art of being physical and imposing, they are almost unrecognisable from this time last year.

At that time, the loss of Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino was hurting the All Blacks. They had found great athletes and promising replacements but none had the nasty edge; the intimidatory powers giving the All Blacks that hint of volatility all the best sides need.

There are now cameras everywhere and the bad old days of stray fingers, flailing boots and clumsy elbows are gone, but test rugby isn't tiddlywinks quite yet.

The referee is not the sole means of law enforcement; there is still room for self-policing. In fact, it remains imperative that international sides look after themselves.

Intimidation - the legal sort - is still much desired by coaches. The All Blacks weren't so good at that last year. When Richie McCaw was assaulted by Dean Greyling in Dunedin, there was obvious concern for the fact it had happened and the skipper's jaw was lucky not to be broken. But there was also a little surprise at the lack of retribution.

The more worrying and telling gauge of where the All Blacks stood as a pack came at Twickenham last year when they were a distant second.

The English owned them in every facet that day. They scrummaged better, they won the collisions and they won the breakdown.

England got on the front foot and there was a sense they respected but didn't fear the All Black pack.

Twelve months on, things are different. Several members of the pack have taken giant steps this year. Two in particular, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, have emerged as serious hard men in the last 12 months. There has been a huge lift in their performance. Whitelock has been commanding in the air, he's carried the ball more, tackled more, got around better and made a big impact at the collision zones. Retallick, too, has been lower and more dynamic around the field.

The biggest improvement, though, has been in the way they have handled the little skirmishes and flare-ups. Against South Africa at Eden Park, Whitelock and Retallick were quick into the fray after Bismarck du Plessis' famous tackle on Dan Carter. Retallick and South Africa's hard man Eben Etzebeth had each other's jerseys, came head-to-head and it looked like it might be all on. It was a classic line-in-the-sand moment with Retallick refusing to back down; his willingness to defend his team-mate spoke volumes. A boy in 2012, Retallick was a man by September 2013. Etzebeth and the rest of the Springbok pack could see that. They could see they weren't going to be able to bully the All Blacks.

It was the same in Paris when Pascal Pape grappled with Whitelock. Pape is the recognised enforcer of the French side and he wanted to make a forceful point with his forearm. Whitelock was swift and clinical in his reaction and a few seconds later it was unequivocal - the All Blacks weren't going to put up with any nonsense.

"They have done very well against probably the most physical pack in world rugby - which is South Africa," says coach Steve Hansen of his forwards.

The game against England this morning he felt would be another major test of their character and standing and provide another good handle on where they are at in the enforcement business.

Hansen knows the art of intimidation is not quickly or easily learned. It takes time for test players to feel comfortable imposing themselves. But that hasn't stopped Hansen asking for it. He and the rest of the coaching staff have put some heat on their 'big' young men to step up this year. Whitelock had that heat applied last year when he was pushed to the bench for the match against Argentina in Wellington. It was a kick up the backside - a warning that he was in his third season with the All Blacks and it was time for him to assume the mantle of the senior lock.

The message has been extended to all, even first-year All Black Steven Luatua, who says he's got a long way to go on the intimidation front.

"I don't think I have met that challenge yet," he says. "There were times in that Japan game where I lacked it. One of the things about consistency is that you have to do it again and again and again. That's what you learn from the likes of Richie [McCaw] - that he does it again and again and again."

Retallick has been able to deliver that consistency Luatua talks about. He's been unfailing this year - a bruising presence who looks and plays like a big man.

"There is not anything I have done particularly different," he says. "It is just about wanting to get out there and play rugby and get better. There is a lot of pressure and a lot of competition in the second row. If you are not performing, you are not going to be playing but sitting on the bench or even in the stands and I don't want to be doing that."

- Herald on Sunday

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