Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Lock it in - duo raise benchmark

Allister Coetzee remains hopeful of upsetting the All Blacks tonight. Picture / www.photosport.nz
Allister Coetzee remains hopeful of upsetting the All Blacks tonight. Picture / www.photosport.nz

The last time the Springboks were able to dominate the All Blacks was 2009.

They were a better all-round side than the All Blacks back then, but the real areas of difference were their respective kicking games and their ability at lock.

The Boks had the world-class Victor Matfield in partnership with Bakkies Botha and were a supremely good combination. Matfield was brilliant in the air, strong around the park and good with the ball in his hands.

Botha was OK aerially, but excellent in the collisions where he made his sizeable presence felt. Those two made the Springboks the team they were in 2009.

The All Blacks, who went through that year with Brad Thorn partnered firstly with Isaac Ross then Tom Donnelly, were a long way behind.

The story could hardly be any different seven years on. The All Blacks, since losing three in a row to the Boks in 2009, have won 11 of their last 13 tests against South Africa.

They have become the dominant force in the rivalry and, while they are a better all-round side than the Springboks, the real area of difference is their respective kicking games and their ability at lock.

The latter has become not so much an under-appreciated strength of the All Blacks, more an area that many now take for granted. That's probably a compliment to the relentless excellence produced by Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick who have become the world's premier locking combination.

They are a phenomenon, a partnership that offers everything and more that a locking duo should. They keep the All Blacks scrum rock steady and are part of a lineout that has become one of the best offensively and defensively.

They are mobile, vital ball-carriers, with Retallick, especially, taking the ball into contact more than 10 times in most tests, and they are both decision makers.

The icing on their cake comes in the way both are so good at off-loading and making creative passes that enable the All Blacks to play a continuity game, the likes of which hasn't really been seen before. And both can play 80 minutes, meaning the All Blacks don't always need a third lock on the bench.

South Africa are pinning their hopes on the supremely athletic Eben Etzebeth and the injured but equally agile Lood de Jager.

They are hoping these two will develop the same breadth of skills and influence as Retallick and Whitelock.

But the Kiwi pair has the edge and there's a bit of daylight between them. Etzebeth hasn't developed as a ball carrier in the same way Retallick has and de Jager can't match Whitelock's accuracy in the air.

The benchmark set by Matfield and Botha has been raised by Retallick and Whitelock.

- NZ Herald

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