Back to beast mode: How new All Blacks captain Brodie Retallick found his groove again

Anointing Brodie Retallick the fourth All Blacks captain this year signals one of the world’s premier locks is back in beast mode.

Two years after his test debut Retallick was crowned world player of the year in 2014 – a rare feat indeed for a tight-five member. At that point, he was an unstoppable force of nature.

As the years wore, the heavy collisions mounted and Retallick’s combative style took its toll on his big frame. Through 2017-19 he battled several injuries, frustration, disappointment which included the drawn Lions series and World Cup semi-final defeat.

By the end of 2019, he needed a break.

This year Retallick returned from an 18-month stint in Japan that allowed him to boost the bank balance and refresh physically and mentally. After a gradual return to the test arena, we’re now seeing the benefits of that sojourn.

Since returning home Retallick has been eased back into the All Blacks – sitting out the first test of the year; starting against Fiji in Dunedin and playing the third match in July off the bench.

His slow burn progression continued with three successive starts against the Wallabies – playing 80 minutes in Perth last week where he assumed the captaincy after Ardie Savea left the field following a first half head knock.

The sight of Retallick storming over the top of Wallabies captain Michael Hooper warmed the heart – but one snapshot he is back nearing his best.

After making six changes – two forced – to his starting team for Sunday’s test against the Pumas on the Gold Coast, and handing Retallick the captaincy to follow in Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith and Savea’s footsteps this season, Ian Foster revealed the 30-year-old covered the most ground he had seen from a lock in Perth.

“His body is now at the point where he’s much closer to what he used to be strength and size wise and yet we haven’t seen any loss in his aerobic capacity,” Foster said. “His work last week was phenomenal. It was some of the highest numbers we’ve seen. He’s back, he’s confident, he’s got a smile on his face. When you get the body and mind strong it’s quite a force.

“That’s one of the big things with Brodie. When he’s settled and loves the environment he can go out and express himself and I don’t want a lot to change with the captaincy.”

With Sam Cane injured, Whitelock and Smith in New Zealand, Foster always planned to rotate the captaincy and his squad during this testing stretch of five tests in as many weeks. That left a decision between whether Beauden Barrett, who captained the All Blacks once previously against the Barbarians, or Retallick would lead in Savea’s absence.

“I feel Beauden has a lot on his plate, he’s a key driver for this team,” Foster said. “He’s in a really good place in terms of how he leads this team. It’s a chance for Brodie to have a different task. He’s clearly a quality player and I think he responds to extra responsibility.

“I was impressed with how those two worked together last week, particularly in that second half. Some of the tactical moves and conversations were spot on so it’s really a continuation of where we got to.

“It was always unlikely Ardie was going to play five tests in a row so hence that strategy of naming the two vice-captains early so whatever happens we can deal with it in a seamless manner.”

Foster will, likewise, hope his other selection changes are as seamless. Those include three tweaks to the forward pack where loosehead prop Karl Tu’inukuafe’s scrummaging prowess is preferred ahead of George Bower and Chiefs No 8 Luke Jacobson comes in for Savea. With Codie Taylor rested following his head knock, Hurricanes hooker Asafo Aumua pips Samisoni Taukei’aho to earn his first test start.

Having played two games – one for the All Blacks, one for Wellington – in the past two months, Aumua faces a difficult task nailing his big chance.

“He was disappointed he wasn’t in the group last week but we made a decision to go with the most recent battled hardened players so this is his time,” Foster said. “He’s jumping out of his skin. He had an unfortunate July series where he wasn’t able to get on the park through injury.

“He might take a little time – it’s not easy in your first test start playing against a team that scrums differently than he’ll be used to and there’ll be a lot of pressure at lineout time, but he’s a quality young man and it’ll be a great experience for him.”

The backline features three further changes with Sevu Reece returning to the right edge and Crusaders team-mate George Bridge pushing the in-form Will Jordan out of the side.

As flagged earlier this week halfbacks TJ Perenara and Brad Weber rotate, while Jordie Barrett retains the fullback role after being sent off 28 minutes into last week’s 38-21 victory for raising his boot while taking a high ball but escaping suspension.

“Clearly it’s a pretty stressful time going through a judiciary process you never quite know what’s going to go on but he’s a relieved man and ready to go.”

On the bench experienced prop Joe Moody makes his comeback after five months out following foot surgery and Rieko Ioane – brilliant on the left wing in Perth – will cover midfield and outside backs.

Given nine players in the 23-man squad were involved in the All Blacks first loss to the Pumas in Sydney last year there should be no form of complacency, despite the Argentinians arriving off two convincing defeats to the Springboks in South Africa.

All Blacks:

Jordie Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili, George Bridge, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick (c), Nepo Laulala, Asafo Aumua, Karl Tu’inukuafe.

Reserves: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Joe Moody, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i, Ethan Blackadder, Brad Weber, Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane

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