Brodie Retallick: The All Black who has everything
‘He can score tries, he tackles, he poaches, he’s stealing lineouts, he’s winning lineouts’
New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick winning a lineout ball against England at Twickenham on November 10th. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire
There’s no doubt that the All Blacks were missing two of the main cogs in the machine two years ago in Chicago. One was Sam Whitelock and the other was Brodie Retallick. Two weeks later they were back, and a gruesomely physical All Blacks enacted revenge.
Today the pair are back in harness again for a 50th time, surpassing the record previously held by Ian Jones and Robin Brooke. Admittedly, Ireland didn’t have James Ryan two years ago, and it’s testimony to his ability that coming up against Retallick could constitute something of a benchmark day in Ryan’s career. For Ryan is potentially that good.
Retallick would make a difference to any team, even the All Blacks. In 73 Tests he has only been on the losing side three times, whereas he was missing with a shoulder injury when they lost to South Africa in that memorable game in Wellington earlier this year, as he was when they lost in Johannesburg in 2014. With Retallick in their ranks, the All Blacks have a 93.8 per cent winning ratio. Without him it’s 85 per cent.
Success has tended to follow him around. He was a key part of the Baby Blacks (surely a misnomer in his case) which won the World Under-20 World Championships in 2011, was then part of the Chiefs team which won the Super Rugby title in 2012, as well as making his debut for the All Blacks at the age of 21.
A second Super title followed in 2012, and he was a key component in the All Blacks’ World Cup triumph of 2015, as well as six Rugby Championship titles in seven years.
Retallick was the winner of World Rugby Player of the Year in 2014 at the age of 23, the youngest winner to date. He’s so good he has even drawn comparisons with Sir Colin Meads.
There’s hardly a box Retallick doesn’t tick. A major component of a scrum that has had a 100 per cent return on its own put-in since June, his line-out work scaled the heights last week when he beat Maro Itoje to three second-half throws by Jamie George. He leads the line up hard in defence, makes impact hits and cleans out rucks ruthlessly.
Then there’s his handling skills in midfield and the wide channels. In the All Blacks’ win over Australia in Sydney, his dummy was bought by Bernard Foley, the cameraman and TV producer as he galloped in from half-way for his fourth Test try.
Asked about Retallick on Thursday, Devin Toner said: “I think there’s so much been said about him so far I can’t really add to it, to be honest. He’s your all-rounder. He can score tries, he tackles, he poaches, he’s stealing lineouts, he’s winning lineouts.”
A play-making lock?
“Yeah, he’s making us look bad now, the rest of us,” admitted Toner. “He has kind of changed it, to be honest. He was a deserving winner of World Player of the Year there a couple of years ago, and he’s just continued on.”
This is Retallick’s third time in Dublin, having also been part of the 2013 All Blacks’ Great Escape. He was part of a group that visited the GPO on Wednesday, and on Thursday he could hardly have been more polite in granting an interview.
Retallick also made his debut against Ireland at Eden Park in June 2012 in a 42-10 win. “I had to cancel my 21st birthday because of my All Blacks debut,” he recalls, laughing. “It was awesome. I remember how fast it was. Before I knew it, it was half-time. Very fond memories. Aw mate, it couldn’t have gone any better.”
His mum (Jo), his dad (Glen) and his then girlfriend and now wife and mother of their two daughters Niki were all in the crowd, although the day was not without its fears.
“I was very worried about doing the haka and not getting those actions wrong and also singing the national anthem. The rugby was the easy part, I think. It was special to have my mum and dad and my wife there watching, and playing in front of them. It’s been a while since I thought about it actually.”
It had always been something he had dreamed of doing ever since he began playing at the age of five, “barefoot and in the frost”, even if it didn’t become a serious aspiration until his late teens when he moved to Hawke’s Bay.
His uncle, John Ashworth, was a prop who played 24 times for the All Blacks between 1978 and 1985. His cousin, Culum, played Super Rugby for the Blues, Chiefs, Highlanders and also the Melbourne Rebels.
His dad Glen, a milk driver for Fontera, played club rugby, and was also a prop. Retallick’s older brother Brooke plays out-half for Canterbury Bs and younger brother Logan plays for Amberley.
“We have a very sporty family, and although it doesn’t happen quite so much anymore because everyone is getting a bit older, but we used to have some brother on brother on Christmas Day every year, which was pretty feisty, and then having an uncle in the All Blacks, it’s pretty cool to join him in this team as well.”
They grew up in Amberley in North Canterbury, on the east coast of the south island, about 50km north of Christchurch, which was also were his parents and grandparents hailed from and have always lived.
“My older brother was at Christchurch Boys’ [High School], and being a sporty family and it being a sporty school, I just followed his footsteps, and went to school ‘in town’. From the first year I played rugby there.
“For me rugby was always about having fun, and then later in high school days playing rugby and having a few beers with your mates afterwards. Obviously now it’s a bit more serious, but I’ve always enjoyed the physical side of the game and throwing the ball around.”
He attributes the skill-set more to the good fortune of coming across an array of high quality coaches than any God-given talent. “Having an older brother who was a ‘first-five’, he was the skilful one in the family, so I was always trying to keep up with him.”
Coming out of school as a gangly 18-year-old, the two years playing provincial rugby with Hawke’s Bay were a stepping stone, developing his body and his game under their then forwards coach Tom Coventry, and he sure landed on his feet at the Chiefs.
“Looking back, I think how did it happen that quick? It was certainly a roller-coaster ride. Those first couple of years went so quickly. Nothing went wrong and it was all on a good wave.”
At 24 he was part of an All Blacks team which retained the World Cup, breaking new ground, and with some All Blacks’ rugby royalty.
“To come to England, and become the first New Zealand team to win it off-shore, that was huge. And the calibre of players that were in that team was great to learn from. You try and carry the standards that they set around the team on to the next generation."
“When I was still in high school, Richie McCaw was playing for the Crusaders and the All Blacks, and I always looked up to him. He just had so much pedigree about him. He left no stone unturned, and you knew he was going to go out there and give his all.”
He’s had some good coaches along the way too. He references Tom Coventry, Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith, as well as Neil Barnes, a chief sports coach at the Chiefs, and Steve Hansen, Ian Foster and Mike Cronn at the All Blacks. “When you list them off it’s a wealth of knowledge.”
For all the accolades, honours and medals along the way, Retallick, who likes cruising in classic cars, would like to think he hasn’t changed.
“I think as a person I’m pretty much the same, pretty low-key. I just like to chill out and enjoy life. As a rugby player hopefully I’m a little bit wiser, a little bit stronger and a little bit fitter, but still the same guy.”
Along the way he has five from five in meetings with Ireland.
“I’d like to keep it that way, that’s for sure,” chuckles Retallick. He watched the Chicago game at home after suffering concussion against Australia two weeks earlier, returned for the win against Italy a week later, and along with Whitelock was part of the revenge mission at the Aviva a week further on.
“It was a pretty physical game,” he says with deliberate understatement. You guys don’t take defeat very well? “Nah, we don’t enjoy being beaten around here,” he says, laughing.
Retallick recognises that Ireland have made “massive shifts” since that 2012 tour, and interestingly his starting point for this is: “You only have to look at the athletes they’ve got now, and how skilful they are, and how physical they are. They deserve to be where they are, and what we love about playing the Irish too is that they’re good fellas off the field that you can have a good chat with and a beer post the competition. Yea, we’ve got huge respect for the Irish within the All Blacks.”
As for Ryan, Retallick says: “I’ve seen a bit of James Ryan, especially when Ireland were playing Australia earlier in the year. I haven’t seen so much of the Six Nations but of course I’ve seen the video stuff of him. He’s very mobile and very skilful.”
Still only 27. Crazy. And scarily, still loads to achieve too.
“The body is starting to catch up a wee bit with a few years of footy under the belt,” he says good-naturedly, although it’s hard to believe. “It gets a bit stiffer and a bit sorer, but I hope I have a few more successful years with the All Blacks.”
It seems almost inevitable.