Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Onus on old pro to lead locks

Tom Donnelly. Photo / Getty Images
Tom Donnelly. Photo / Getty Images

Of the three Blues locks still standing, it's a tough call as to who faces the more significant Super Rugby season - Tom Donnelly, Liaki Moli or Patrick Tuipulotu; the veteran, the heir apparent and the rookie.

The onus is on the trio to bolster the Blues pack after Culum Retallick's snapped cruciate ligament ended his season, and Ali Williams and Anthony Boric headed overseas. Lock is perceived as one of the weaker positions in the squad.

At 32, Donnelly made his Super Rugby debut in 2004 for the Highlanders. He has also played two seasons at the Crusaders and had a stint with Japanese club Mitsubishi.

He debuted for the All Blacks against Australia in 2009 and earned his 15th and last test cap against Ireland in 2010.

Moli turned 24 this month and enters his third Super season; he'll be wanting to ensure he progresses his career, as befitting the New Zealand Rugby Union's 2010 Age Grade Player of the Year.

Like Moli, Tuipulotu has an impressive CV but has more freedom to make his mark in his debut Super season after showing power and skill in the ITM Cup before breaking his jaw. He's made a sound start ahead of his 21st birthday on Wednesday. As the incumbent, Tuipulotu handed over the team's 'trainer of the week' title last week to captain Luke Braid. The other finalists were Donnelly, Benji Marshall (introduced as 'noisiest player in the team'), Angus Ta'avao and George Moala.

The Blues may need that kind of energy and commitment in the second row. Replacing Retallick is a matter of urgency, with few experienced players available.

Former New Zealand Maori rep Hayden Triggs could be an option as locking cover. He was last listed on the second division Honda Heat roster in Japan - where the season dovetails neatly with Super Rugby. The 31-year-old former Linton army base corporal has experience with the Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs.

Another could be former Chiefs lock Toby Lynn, who finished his two-year contract with the Force last season. The 29-year-old's current whereabouts could not be established. Northland and former Australia under-20 lock Tom Murday could be promoted from the wider training group to the full squad, while Auckland Marist club lock William Lloyd has been brought in on a temporary apprenticeship.

"We're in the process of working out contracts and what we can legally do," coach Sir John Kirwan said. "We have talked to a couple of people. Hopefully we'll have some names by early in the week but we'll be replacing Red [Retallick] with someone from outside the squad at this stage.

"It puts the emphasis on Tom, who's been a real asset, while hopefully someone like Liaki is going to stand up for us. [Steven] Luatua would be unlikely to start [as lock]. We'd have to be in a bad way for locking stocks. He might play 10 minutes [at lock] to finish games."

Donnelly acknowledges the added responsibility: "The loss of Culum is a tough one. It probably means more game time for me, which is great, but Red's leadership regarding lineouts and scrums was valuable. Pat is a young guy; he's got a lot of learning to do in his first year. It's also a big thing for Liaki to step into a senior role to help out."

Donnelly intends to call on his All Blacks experience: "That environment taught me how to be professional. It gave me a new take on what it takes to succeed at the top, which is important at the Blues, where you have a lot of different cultures.

"This is a young team with coaches and players building an identity they can play for - like the Chiefs with their mana and Crusaders with their legacy. The last few years, the Blues have drifted away from their initial success."

Donnelly has also made other adjustments living in Auckland with his wife and eight-month-old son: "We're in an apartment with no backyard, for starters. I enjoy the outdoors so that has been tough but there's a big ocean nearby with plenty of fish in it. That'll keep me sane. Hopefully I'll get out there soon. Adapting to the numbers of people and planning traffic times to get to training have been added to the routine."

- Herald on Sunday

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