Patrick Tuipulotu's spirited performance against Australia at Eden Park was both a revelation and a reality check.
A revelation because you wonder why, even with the caveat that no one plays like that all the time, Tuipulotu doesn't play like that…er…all the time.
It was a reality check because it masked the fact the All Blacks have not had such a paucity of true international-class locks for many years – over 30, to be precise.
That's become even more acute with Brodie Retallick's current injury. Tuipulotu's return to form after some perplexingly quiet matches will have comforted the All Black selectors – and it could now be a direct choice between Tuipulotu and lock-loose forward Jackson Hemopo for a seat on the World Cup plane when the squad is announced on Wednesday.
The selectors could, if worried about Retallick getting up to speed fast enough, take both of them, though there may still be some disquiet about Tuipulotu's consistency. Before last Saturday, many – perhaps even most – armchair selectors will have left out the big Blues lock from the 31-man All Black squad.
Prior to his role in the triumph over the Wallabies, watching Tuipulotu often turned my mind back years to when the University rugby club had a talented lock of battleship dimensions but gentle disposition. The only time he played to his potential was when he felt the opposition was taking liberties.
Someone deputed the halfback to fire the big lock up – which he did by slippering him in a ruck, informing him the opposition was guilty. The results were often spectacular. I know this because the halfback is a friend and I'd personally experienced on-field evidence the lock was a considerable force if his team-mates had lit his fuse.
That's an oblique way of saying Tuipulotu's consistency may still be an issue and a bit of a road block to his World Cup hopes. The reality is that Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett are all ahead of him in rank. If Tuipulotu is required in Japan, it may only be for a game or two and the All Blacks will only need to get him breathing fire the same way they did last Saturday.
So it may be the selectors still choose three locks and Hemopo as lock-loose forward cover. Or they could decide to take Tuipolutu as a fourth lock – leaving Hemopo at home and stocking specialist loose forwards instead of a utility who covers lock.
However, there is a wider issue at play re the second row. Not since 1986 has there been such a dearth of international locks; even then depth was better than now. Retallick's and Whitelock's upcoming sabbaticals will place even more pressure on lock stocks.
Retallick is gone until May 2021. Whitelock's deal means he will be overseas but eligible for All Black selection – a precedent that the new All Black coach, whoever that is, may feel could come back to bite him rather severely on the backside when others negotiate spells overseas. That leaves Barrett and Tuipulotu.
In 1986, when the Cavaliers decimated All Black ranks after suspension for their rebel tour, and because of injury, locks Michael Speight, Brent Anderson and Gordon Macpherson made it into a black jersey. That was the "Baby Blacks" era when a palpably under-strength All Black team famously beat the French but fell to the Australians before the Cavaliers were reinstated.
When Anderson was selected against Australia for his one and only test match, he was pretty much New Zealand's eighth-ranked lock, behind Andy Haden, Gary Whetton, Murray Pierce, Speight, lock-loose forward Andy Earl, Macpherson and Canterbury's Albert Anderson.
These days, it's a struggle to find eight test-ready locks. Underneath the top four are few options. Pari Pari Parkinson (Highlanders) and Isaia Walker-Leawere (Hurricanes) are promising youngsters but there's no way you could say they are All Black-ready.
Beyond that there is only the much-overlooked Tom Franklin and young hopefuls like the Crusaders' Quinten Strange and the mobile Mitchell Dunshea, plus young loosies with the size and mobility required of locks – like the Blues' Tom Robinson.
Strange is 22, 1.99m and 112kg and has 25 games for the Crusaders under his belt. Robinson is 24, 1.98m, about 110kg and highly mobile, calling to mind a more rugged version of Ian Jones but maybe not yet as sharp or savvy. Parkinson is over 2m, athletic but a long way off yet, as is 22-year-old Walker-Leawere who has considerable bulk to go with his 1.97m.
Such problems can be cyclical – in 1970, No. 8 Alan Sutherland was pressed into service as a test lock on the 1970 tour of South Africa and, the following year, Sir Brian Lochore made his famous dash to Wellington from retirement to play against the British Lions as a lock.
It didn't work. But, from 2020 on, the sparseness of top locks may see similar accommodations made or require some sharp talent-spotting and rapid promotion.