RANKED: The five most feared lock partnerships in Test rugby

Jared Wright
ranked Planet Rugby takes a deep dive into the top lock pairings in the sport to measure who has the advantage in the lead-up to the Rugby World Cup.

With the Rugby World Cup looming, Planet Rugby will be taking a look at the units of a team to measure who has the advantage in the lead-up to the tournament.

We continue with the engine room, the drivers in the pack, the big men with the big tanks that drive their team forwards and stops the opposition in their tracks, the locks.

5. Argentina: Matias Alemanno/Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini

This a position of real strength and depth for Michael Cheika, and they could be ranked even higher if they settled on a regular starting combination.

Alemmano and Petti are underrated athletes for such big men, while their ability to run a lineout is frankly superb. The pair work tirelessly and often compete for the same starting jumper.

Meanwhile, Lavanini is regularly on the wrong end of the referee’s whistle, but his work-rate and sheer brutality makes him a demanding customer for any opposing pack.

The trio’s prowess in the second-row affords Cheika the option of playing Marcos Kremer on the side of the scrum, but he, too has featured in the engine room to great effect.

Strengths: Power, aggression, athleticism
Weaknesses: Discipline, a clear starting combination

4. France: Thibaud Flament/Cameron Woki and Paul Willemse

France have a fantastic yin and yang combination, with Flament and Woki providing the pace, athleticism and speed of a back-rower while Willemse adds the hard-nosed grunt and power that is required in Test rugby.

Unfortunately for Fabien Galthie, at least one of the three has been injured for France over the last 12 months, meaning that the starting combination still needs to be cemented.

Willemse has been a clear first-choice selection when fit, and he packed down alongside Woki during the 2022 Six Nations Grand Slam campaign. However, he did not feature in the November internationals, while Woki missed the 2023 Six Nations.

Flament made the most of the pair’s injuries, starring in November as he paired up with Woki, before thriving alongside Willemse during the 2023 Six Nations.

Outside of the trio, Romain Taofifénua has impressed at times. Still, there is a notable drop-off when he is starting compared to Willemse, while Bastien Chalureau has put his hand up in the limited opportunities he has been given.

There is also a belief that Galthie’s faith in Willemse is waning, leading to the attempt to fast-track Emmanuel Meafou’s qualification for France.

Regardless, when Willemse is fit and firing on all cylinders, he is a frightening prospect to tackle and be tackled by.

Strengths: Work rate, athleticism, skilful
Weaknesses: Injury-prone, depth and a drop off in weight if Willemse is not starting

3. New Zealand: Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock

The most capped locking partnership in Test rugby is still going strong, with Retallick and Whitelock overtaking Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield’s record last year.

Like their former Springbok counterparts, the New Zealand pair offer a good mix of brutality (Botha and Retallick) and lineout smarts (Matfield and Whitelock). However, they cannot just be pigeonholed into those categories as, like most All Blacks, they are comfortable with ball in hand.

Retallick also has a knack for running excellent support lines to finish off tries but is equally adept in the dark arts of the rucks and mauls.

The duo are in the latter stages of their careers, so a slight drop-off was bound to happen, but their standard is immensely high and superior to most second-row partnerships.

They are also being pushed by Scott Barrett, who can easily slip into the tighthead or loosehead lock role, providing the All Blacks with an excellent filler for both players.

Patrick Tuipulotu hasn’t quite hit the heights his talent promised, but he is still an excellent option in the number four jumper, while Tupou Vaa’i is a rising star.

Strengths: Experience, extremely well-balanced players, leadership
Weaknesses: Ageing starters and a notable drop off outside of Barrett

2. Ireland: Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan

There was a lot of hype around Ryan when he earned his Test debut for Ireland in 2017, and he is now living up to that and is one of the best tighthead locks in world rugby.

Ryan has continually grown throughout his career and is now an excellent lineout general, adding to his insane work-rate and leadership abilities.

Meanwhile, Beirne has been a revelation in the second-row for Munster and Ireland, with the shift from loose forward to lock now a raging success.

Beirne has an unbelievable skillset in almost every facet of the game and adds an unrivalled attacking breakdown brilliance in Test rugby.

Iain Henderson and Ryan Baird provide stability and youth cover in the second-row. Meanwhile, the likes of Kieran Treadwell and Joe McCarthy continually press for selection, keeping the regulars on top of their game.

Strengths: Work-rate, athleticism, breakdown threat
Weaknesses: Not quite as powerful as the other second-rows, particularly at tighthead lock if Ryan is unavailable.

1. South Africa: Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager

Up to this point, we have discussed the key attributes that make a tremendous modern-day lock, and if you put all those qualities into a supercomputer to produce the ideal second-row partnership, it would spit out something eerily similar to Etzebeth and De Jager.

The one area of the game in which the duo isn’t remarkably gifted is their ability to pilfer over the ball. However, that matters little, as their sheer size and physicality means they can simply steamroll over the opposition and secure a turnover through their astounding counter-rucking.

While many teams struggle to find a tighthead lock, ala Will Skelton and Willemse, that suits the modern game, the Springboks seemingly have two in Etzebeth and De Jager, with RG Snyman not too far off and Salmaan Moerat still developing to fill that role.

When the pair are both on the pitch, De Jager is usually the busier carrier with his 2.05m and 125 kg frame used to smash into the opposition defenders. He also recently showed his delicate side with superb soft touches to open up gaps for his teammates. Etzebeth is no slouch carrying the ball but is often clearing out the rucks when the Boks are in possession, while his athleticism makes him an excellent chaser and competitor for the South African’s box kicks. Put it this way, Etzebeth’s job is to make life as uncomfortable as humanly possible and more often than not, he is hugely successful in doing so.

Into the set-pieces, and there are few, if any, better contestable jumpers in the front of the lineout than Etzebeth, and jumping there on his own possession is one of the safest bets in world rugby.

With Snyman fit again and bound to earn a recall to the Springboks, South Africa have an insane replacement that will be the envy of every Test side, just adding further world-class talent with Franco Mostert in the Springbok set-up, too – nevermind, the untapped potential of Pieter-Steph du Toit in the second-row.

Strengths: Work-rate, brutality, world-class lineout jumpers, rugby IQ
Weaknesses: Lack of pilfer threat

Honourable mentions

Several locking combinations were on the cusp of making our top five but fell just short.

Wales have a few standout locks coming through their ranks, but Adam Beard and Alun Wyn Jones are still the standouts for Warren Gatland. The former of the national team counted against them, but they are still up there with the best in the business.

Maro Itoje continues to be one of the best locks in the game, but for some time, he has yet to have a regular partner in the second-row. The possible partnership with David Ribbans has the potential to be right near the top of our ranking.

Staying in the United Kingdom, Richie Gray and Grant Gilchrist have been solid for Scotland, with Gray, in particular, hitting sublime form for the side in recent Tests.

The young Azzurri pairing of Niccolo Cannone and Federico Ruzza impressed during the Six Nations have an extremely high ceiling, while Australia has colossal potential with Skelton and one of the Arnold brothers, but they have not had a regular locking pairing for far too long.

READ MORE: RANKED: The five most feared front-rows in Test rugby