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Locks and LOLs for record-breaking New Zealand stalwarts

Whitelock and Retallick are a serious combination on the field, not so much on press duty.

Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

‘THIS IS A weird question, but…’

You know you’re in trouble when a press conference features a query that is admittedly weird. But New Zealand’s media duty had already gotten a little peculiar by that point.

The All Blacks tend to send players out in pairs to speak with the assembled press. Sometimes it can work well, like when Ryan Crotty and Dane Coles effortlessly read off the same hymn sheet this week, other times the predicament can bring the schoolboy out of characters like Israel Dagg who enjoy a snigger and an in-joke.

Facing the media is a laborious task, for sure. You can see why players, already cooped up in camp for a long stint or tour, feel the need to entertain themselves a little along the way.

As Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick took their turn on the dais yesterday, you got the impression that it was the touring reporters who were trying to entertain themselves.

Whitelock and Retallick are the best second row partnership in the game. Yet they are also part of New Zealand’s furniture – the absence of which allowed Ireland all that space to enjoy themselves in Chicago. So as they were trotted out to discuss their 50th Test start as a partnership, an All Black record, the travelling Kiwi media endeavoured to find questions that brought more than just platitudes and professionalisms from the duo.

A late query about their haircuts and strength of their moustache growth was the least of their worries.

‘Is it like a marriage?’

“Who’s the male and who’s the female,” Whitelock asked a shrugging Retallick.

New ZealandÕs Brodie Retallick Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock New Zealand's 4, 5 and 8 have no shortage of experience.

It was uncomfortable, but the locks are experienced enough to know that press rooms are an easy crowd. There are so many of us with a guffaw in the chamber ready to fire if a player or coach of gets anywhere near a punch-line to break away from the very serious business of matchdays.

Whitelock and Retallick are serious matchday competitors indeed, but they were all too aware that the serious work was, at that point, over 48 hours away. So they were happy to analyse mullets and entertain questions about how much telepathy played a part in their relationship.

‘Sam, did you know Brodie was going to say that? Can you read his mind?’

“Not quite, but I thought it was a pretty good answer.”

‘What’s he thinking now?’

“He’s thinking when are you going to be quiet so we can go have our second lunch.”

As joke deliveries go, the closing act of Jack Goodhue showed a much better sense of comic timing. Amid another bout of painful banter about moustaches, the young centre stopped himself saying it was for a good cause, turning to his table-mate Damien McKenzie to double check: “what’s Movember for?”

A good gag to bring a relaxed Kiwi talkshop to a close.

England's Maro Itoje and New Zealand's Brodie Retallick Retallick contests a line-out with Maro Itoje. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Maybe you could reach and suggest that this level of smiling and joking was an indication that New Zealand are not sufficiently prepared to battle Ireland. But this is what they do. They are supremely confident in their own ability feel they can afford to pick and choose when they are relaxed and when the serious business begins.

The serious chat among the locks was interesting too, because Ireland place a lot of emphasis on the line-out as a platform to attack from. Last weekend’s set-pieces brought no shortage of worries for Simon Easterby’s pack as both Argentina and New Zealand succeeded in disrupting their opposition ball.

The All Black forwards were speaking before Joe Schmidt named his team — and few Kiwis are able to rattle off stored-up thoughts if you present them with an Irish name — but Whitelock expects Ireland to be better out of touch this time around and the addition of Devin Toner will most likely prove him right.

“I think teams are so good now that they can change within games,” says the 107 cap Crusader.

“No doubt they took some learnings from it and they’ll have a couple of things up their sleeves. It’s all about us doing our homework and getting in the air.

Retallick adds: “We approach the opposition line-out pretty much the same every week.

Brodie Retallick Retallick enjoys the laughs after the team announcement. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Maybe last week we got a bit more luckier and nicked a few. Our forwards do their homework and we try to anticipate their movement and try read cues and to pick where they go, then get in the air and try to challenge for the ball.

You have to try and read their body language and movement, and at the same time it’s about getting in the air because if you think about it too much you’ll still be on the ground.”

When they are on the ground, that in-built understanding that comes with 50 caps of experience together becomes invaluable.

“We don’t talk to each other a lot,” offers Whitelock on whether he and Retallick have an intuitive understanding, “but sometimes body language is all you need to know.

“It does speed up the process because you don’t always have time to have a good old chin-wag about it. You get to a scrum, sometimes you don’t have to say anything, but we know we need to get around the corner or whatever. That definitely helps. The more you play with someone, the more you pick up things.”

Whitelock’s mention of the scrum leads thoughts drifting to the two big men binding one for the set-piece, adding their weight to the props’ big shove.

This is a weird question but does it feel right? Did you physically fit together from the start?

“I guess this is a loaded question,” smiles Whitelock, “but yeah, it’s felt pretty good.” 

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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