A new generation of All Black locks have the most golden opportunity to step up since Brad Thorn went back to Australia in 2012.
Sam Whitelock rejoining Brodie Retallick is a huge bonus for the team when they arrive in Europe after the test with a very average American side in Chicago.
Barring injury, at 33 and 30 respectively there's no reason Whitelock and Retallick shouldn't be suiting up for the next World Cup in 2023.
But the next tier of locks, men in their mid to late 20s, are not exactly snapping at their heels. So the chance is there for much younger men to stake a claim,
It's a good time to reflect on how much the Whitelock-Retallick duo has meant to the All Blacks since they first joined forces at the heart of the scrum in 2012.
Here's my list of the six best pairings since Colin Meads was moved from loose forward to lock in 1959:
6) Gary Whetton and Murray Pierce
Whetton and Pierce were together for 25 tests over five seasons from 1985. They provided a template that's been successful many, many times for the All Blacks. The hard as nails grafter, in this case Pierce, and the agile ball winner.
Whetton hadn't made the Auckland Grammar First XV as a schoolboy, because, his twin brother and fellow All Black Alan, claimed "he was too fat and lazy." But out of school, a course at Outward Bound unleashed the athlete inside Gary, and at a time when lifting wasn't allowed in lineouts, he became a world class jumper. Pierce, a Wellington policeman, could win ball too, but his forte was nose to nose combat. The peak of their partnership was locking for the World Cup winning 1987 side.
5) Sam Whitelock and Brad Thorn
Whitelock turned 23 during the 2011 World Cup, while Thorn, a locking partner at the Crusaders before they joined forces in the All Blacks, was 36 when they played together in the final against France. Thorn defines the hard man lock. "He's easy to coach," Steve Hansen would say. "Just give him something to push, give him something to tackle, give him something to catch, and he's happy. And give him three feeds a day. Just make sure they're big ones." Whitelock had already developed into a savvy player, with 18 tests on his record before the 2011 Cup starts. Together they were key performers in the victory.
4) Colin Meads and Sam Strahan
Meads played 11 tests with Strahan, a towering farmer from Manawatu, who was head hunted by great All Black coach Fred Allen for the 1967 tour to Britain and France. If we take the greatness of Meads as a given, and we should, it's a line call to rate his partnership with Strahan, a lock in the Gary Whetton school of lineout experts, ahead of the 10 tests Meads played from 1958 with Nev MacEwan, the 11 times from 1962 he locked in tests, with his brother, Stan, or the 15 times he partnered Alan Stewart in tests from 1963.
But Fred Allen' endorsement of Strahan is good enough for me. (In passing the best Meads' brothers test story belongs to Stan, who told author Bob Howitt that he was knocked groggy in the final test against the 1965 Springboks at Eden Park. Colin wrenched Stan to his feet and growled, "Mum's in the stand. We're locking this bloody scrum.")
3) Andy Haden and Gary Whetton
Their first test together was the infamous flour bomb Eden Park test of 1981, and they went on to play 12 more tests together to 1985. Whetton says he was extremely nervous before the first, just 21 years old and worried he'd be a one test wonder. In fact he played so well his opposing lock, Louie Moolman, was so surly after the All Blacks victory he initially wouldn't swap his jersey. For Auckland and the All Blacks, Haden and Whetton were a lethal lineout combination. If there was a trick in the book, Haden knew it, and Whetton thrived under his tutelage.
2) Robin Brooke and Ian Jones
Brooke and Jones played a remarkable 45 tests together, with the pinnacle the series victory over the Springboks in South Africa in 1996. Jones, lean and quick, was more resilient than he looked, while Brooke, if not quite as loaded with all round skills as his brother, No.8 Zinzan, had more talents than his pugnacious on field attitude suggested. After the 1995 World Cup in South Africa coach Laurie Mains was moved to suggest that Brooke was the best lock in world rugby. Together with Jones they played against the best lineout men in the game, and were never beaten.
1) Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick
When Brad Thorn left New Zealand, bringing Brodie Retallick into the All Blacks in 2012 would prove to be a stroke of selectorial genius. Retallick was just 21, and, from the time he packed down in his first test with Whitelock, against Ireland at Eden Park, it was clear that the pair had shattered the traditional pattern of one grafter and one flier at lock.
They're both athletes, but they're both tough and combative too. The high point to date remains the 2015 World Cup. While Ian Foster and Co. wait for the next wave of locks, men like Tupou Vaa'i, Josh Lord, Pari Pari Parkinson, and Quinten Strange, to move through, the old locking firm will give the All Blacks some breathing space.