Patrick Tuipulotu sidelined, All Blacks legends departed: What are the options at lock for Scott Robertson?

David Skippers
All Blacks locks image 2024.jpg

All Blacks locks Tupou Vaa'i, Patrick Tuipulotu and Josh Lord.

New Zealand have suffered a massive setback ahead of their upcoming Tests against England and Fiji with star lock Patrick Tuipulotu being ruled out with a knee injury.

The 31-year-old captained the Blues during their 36-5 victory over the Fijian Drua at Eden Park on Saturday but was forced off the field midway though the first half after fellow lock Josh Beehre clattered into him in general play.

Tuipulotu had scans on his injured right knee on Sunday which revealed that he ruptured his medial ligament and is expected to be sidelined for between six and seven weeks.

The All Blacks will take on England in back-to-back Tests in Dunedin on July 6 and 13 before heading to San Diego in the United States where they will face Fiji on July 19.

New Zealand are thin in the locking department after veteran second-row duo Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick retired from international rugby after last year’s Rugby World Cup in France, with Tuipulotu and Crusaders utility forward Scott Barrett viewed as the favourites to take over from Whitelock and Retallick in the All Blacks’ engine room.

With Tuipulotu’s absence in mind, we take a closer look at who All Blacks head coach Scott Robertson might consider as his replacement during the mid-year window.

Front runner

Chiefs second-row Tupou Vaa’i has the inside lane as he has been a regular in the All Blacks squad since making his Test debut against Australia in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash of 2020. Vaa’i is an athletic lock who, like Barrett, can also play on the side of the scrum but he has come to the fore this season as the Chiefs’ first choice second-row and already made 25 appearances for the All Blacks, scoring three tries.

A brilliant lineout exponent, with a high work-rate as a ball carrier and on defence, the 24-year-old came through the ranks at Taranaki in New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship (NPC) and made his debut for the province as an 18-year-old in 2018 before going on to represent the New Zealand U20 team. He made his Super Rugby bow for the Chiefs in 2020 before earning a call-up to the All Blacks squad later that year where he was an understudy to Whitelock and Retallick and made most of his Test appearances off the replacements bench. With the legendary duo now gone, Tupou will relish the opportunity of cementing himself in the All Blacks’ starting XV.

Scott Robertson facing potential back five crisis ahead of England series after injury to key All Black

In the mix

Although defending Super Rugby Pacific champions the Crusaders had a forgetful 2024 campaign and failed to qualify for that competition’s play-offs, Quinten Strange was one of their best performers and a regular in their matchday squads. What could work in the 27-year-old’s favour is that he played under Robertson, during the coach’s seven-year stint as the Crusaders’ boss and although he is not capped at Test level, he was part of the All Blacks set-up in 2020 under former coach Ian Foster before suffering an ankle injury at training.

Another player who will be keen to make the step up to international level is Hurricanes second-row Isaia Walker-Leawere, who is similar in his approach to Tuipulotu as he enjoys the physical aspect of the game and has a high defensive work-rate. Walker-Leawere, whose father Kele Leawere captained Fiji at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, was part of the New Zealand U20 team that won the World Championship in Georgia in 2017 and has also been a regular in the Maori All Blacks team.

Meanwhile, Vaa’i’s Chiefs second-row partner Naitoa Ah Kuoi has caught the eye with some solid performances for the Hamilton-based franchise during their Super Rugby Pacific campaign. Apart from shining in the execution of his core duty in the lineouts, Ah Kuoi has done well as a ball carrier and on defence.

Outside bets

Despite being plagued by injuries throughout his career, four-Test All Black Josh Lord could be a surprise contender to partner Barrett in the All Blacks second-row as, apart from Vaa’i, he is the only one of the candidates to replace Tuipulotu who has Test experience. The 23-year-old is currently sidelined for the rest of the Super Rugby Pacific campaign with an ankle injury sustained in the Chiefs’ sixth-round defeat to the Crusaders.

Meanwhile, one contender who has shown good potential for the Highlanders at Super Rugby Pacific level is Fabian Holland who, despite being just 21 years old, has cemented his place in the Dunedin-based outfit’s run-on side. Born in the Netherlands, Holland has already represented New Zealand senior schools and U20 teams. He has shown great promise as a lineout operator and won the sixth most balls at the set-piece in Super Rugby Pacific this year.

Tuipulotu’s Blues team-mates Laghlan McWhannell and Sam Darry as well as Crusaders lock Jamie Hannah could also be surprise choices after impressing for their respective sides. McWhannell and Darry have taken turns to pack down alongside Tuipulotu in the Blues second-row with both doing well in the lineouts and in the execution of their defensive duties. Hannah, like Holland, is fairly young at the age of 21 but the ex-New Zealand U20 representative is mobile for a second-row with great potential.

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