In the same way that the South African forwards rally around Eben Etzebeth, New Zealand’s pack elevates in the presence of Brodie Retallick. The battle of these two alone will be the heartbeat of the Springboks 100th Test match against the All Blacks, writes Oliver Keohane.
Earlier in the year I wrote a piece titled “Why we go to war with Eben Etzebeth”, detailing the impact that Etzebeth should and would have on the British & Irish Lions series. Etzebeth, from the SA ‘A’ game through to the final Test just grew in stature, and his leadership as much as his toughness was central to the Springbok’s success.
Etzebeth bossed the set-piece, made tackle after tackle, competed for high balls and got through work in the loose. He did this in the wake of injury to Pieter-Steph Du Toit and the absence of RG Snyman, and as impressive as his performances were they were also necessary to the Springbok cause. This necessity has remained the case as South Africa’s bad luck at lock has continued well into the Rugby Championship.
Equally, Brodie Retallick is necessary to the All Black cause. The All Black pack with Retallick at lock is a different beast to that of the one when he was on sabbatical. Retallick has consistently been one of the best locks in the world since starting his international career, and in 2014 was voted World Rugby Player of the Year. However, the sporting world moves quickly in the absence of even the best, and in the Etzebeth piece I also wrote:
“With Brodie Retallick’s time out from injury and sabbatical, he will need a huge year back to back up any claims to being the world’s top lock while Itoje and Etzebeth battle it out.”
Testament to Retallick’s talent is that his impact since returning against Australia and Argentina has immediately opened up the debate again, despite Etzebeth’s brutal brilliance against the British & Irish Lions. Retallick’s class isn’t visible in just his individual showings, but the collective quality of the forwards around him when he plays, and it hasn’t taken him long to lay the foundations for a “huge” year. The same can be said for Eben Etzebeth, and that is why, as far as head-to-heads go, the battle of Brodie and Eben will be the biggest of the match.
Retallick has an impressive run against the Springboks, having won 10 and drawn 1 of the 11 games in which he has played. He has never lost to the Boks but he has also never won against them in the Rassie Erasmus era. The last time Retallick faced the Springboks, in Wellington in 2019, they drew 16 all. When he faces them on Saturday it will be the first time packing down against these Springboks, and Etzebeth, as world champions. Equally – Etzebeth’s biggest marker in world rugby outside of Maro Itoje – always was, and still is Brodie Retallick.
An average Test score of 26-24 to the All Blacks over the last five games against the Springboks would dictate that clashes between these core groups of players are won at the set piece and around the fringes. Both Retallick and Etzebeth roam and thrive in these spaces, and they will be central to the result on Saturday.
It is unlikely that either Etzebeth or Retallick, playing against each other, will have a bad game, and the excitement is not in who comes off best, but rather the rugby product and the result that their confrontations will allow for.
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) September 23, 2021
— Springboks (@Springboks) September 23, 2021