If the All Blacks' search for new locks wasn't already hard enough, the coronavirus scare isn't helping.
Japan's Top League rugby competition doesn't resume until next weekend after two weeks in which major sporting competitions were shut down as part of an effort to see how much the virus had spread. The answer to that question is still unknown – but Japan is copping criticism for not closing its borders to Chinese visitors quickly enough; for quarantining the death trap Diamond Princess cruise liner; and for suspicions the official number of 1023 coronavirus cases is not representative of actual numbers.
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The reason this has relevance to the All Blacks and their lock stocks is Sam Whitelock – the potential All Black captain who is playing Top League rugby but is available for All Black selection.
Quite how Japanese club rugby prepares the craggy lock for his 2020 international campaign was concerning enough for All Blacks medical staff to set up a visit recently to check him out – even before the coronavirus situation blew up. However, it is fairly clear that playing no rugby at all is not the best preparation.
The situation is complicated by the Olympics, due to start in Tokyo in July and also under threat from the virus, the impact of which is now highly politicised in Japan; it may be that rugby and other sporting events face more disruption. The All Blacks' first assignments this year are against Wayne Pivac's Wales, also in July – so there is time.
However, the search for locks has a rather broader focus. Whitelock is 31 now and will be heading for 34 by the time the next World Cup rolls round. It's a moot point whether even this tough operator can drag his body through to the next tournament. Which means a succession plan is needed. Which means you need candidates to succeed him.
So far, after six rounds of Super Rugby, there have been few, if any, standout performers from the second row. With Brodie Retallick also in Japan until mid-2021, the All Blacks are rather short of big, mobile locks with the kind of perpetual-motion engines Retallick and Whitelock possess.
At present, incumbents Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu are both playing well and are automatic selections, though many judges do not rate Tuipulotu highly as our best international lineout option.
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So here is a (very) short list of potential candidates:
• Pari Pari Parkinson (Highlanders) – injured
• Quinten Strange (Crusaders) – injured
• Isaia Walker-Leawere (Hurricanes) – playing well but is he All Black-ready yet?
• Mitchell Dunshea (Crusaders) – showed out well in a largely misfiring Crusaders team against the Reds; is mobile and a good lineout exponent
• Tom Robinson (Blues) – mostly a loose forward but can play lock. Has a great engine and the All Blacks may look at a positional switch
And, um, that's probably it. You could say this is the biggest shortage of international-quality locks in New Zealand rugby since 1986.
That was when the Cavaliers rugby team had all been temporarily banned from international rugby after their rebel tour of South Africa, leaving large holes in All Black ranks. That led to the selection of little-known locks like Michael Speight, Gordon Macpherson and Brent Anderson in the "Baby Blacks" – fielding only four players with previous test experience but famously beating a much more experienced France before falling to the Wallabies in the next test.
When Anderson was selected against Australia, he was effectively 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.
We struggle to get to eight these days. Still, the Baby Blacks did more than just stun France in a big upset. They launched the careers of the great Sean Fitzpatrick and others who became valued All Blacks, like flanker Mike Brewer (32 tests and 61 All Black games), wing Terry Wright (30 tests, 64 games, not to mention 18 test tries) and centre Joe Stanley (27 tests, 49 matches).
So the two tests against Wales might be a Baby Blacks moment for one or more of the hopefuls from the above list – though "bolters" at lock haven't generally enjoyed long All Black careers. Speight, Macpherson and Anderson all had only one test and other, more modern, surprise second rowers like Bryn Evans (two) and Isaac Ross (eight) also didn't last long.
Locks tend to be forged in the furnace of long, grinding apprenticeships, often not reaching a peak until the mid-20s, at the earliest. However, needs must for the All Blacks and it is possible an unheralded selection like Evans – of whom most people had never heard when he made it to the All Blacks – could happen again.
Dunshea and Robinson may be the form contenders from the list above but, if we're talking bolters, don't forget the Crusaders' Cullen Grace and the Highlanders' Manaaki Selby-Rickit. The latter is young and untried but has some pleasing symmetry; his dad Hud was a shock lock selection and two-test All Black in 1981.
However, Grace could be interesting. He's small for a lock – though of almost identical dimensions to Norm Maxwell, another Crusader who made up for his lack of significant size with a fearsome commitment. Grace is maybe better suited to blindside flanker but is a good lineout forward and has impressed all with his work rate so far this season.