With the Rugby World Cup looming, Planet Rugby will look at a team’s units to measure who has the advantage heading into the tournament.
We continue with the engine room, the pilots in the pack, the big men with the big tanks driving their team forward and blocking the opponents in their tracks, the locks.
5. Argentina: Matias Alemanno/Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini
This is a position of real strength and depth for Michael Cheika, and they could be ranked even higher if they settle on a regular starting combination.
Alemmano and Petti are underrated athletes for such long men, while their ability to execute a lineout is frankly superb. The two work tirelessly and often compete for the same starting jumper.
Meanwhile, Lavanini is regularly on the wrong side of the referee’s whistle, but his work-rate and sheer brutality make him a demanding customer for any opposing group.
The ability of the trio in the back row gives Cheika the chance to play with Marcos Kremer in the side of the scrum, but he too 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 combination of yin and yang, with Flament and Woki providing the pace, athleticism and speed of a backrower, while Willemse adds the hard-nosed grunt and power required in Test rugby.
Unfortunately for Fabien Galthie, at least one of the trio has been injured for France in the past 12 months, meaning the starting combination has yet to be cemented.
Willemse was a clear first choice pick when fit, and packed alongside Woki during their 2022 Six Nations Grand Slam campaign. Nations 2023.
Flament made the most of the pair’s injuries, starring in November while partnering Woki, before flourishing alongside Willemse during the 2023 Six Nations.
Outside of the trio, Romain Taofifénua has impressed at times. However, there is a notable drop when he starts compared to Willemse, while Bastien Chalureau has raised his hand in the limited opportunities he has been offered.
There is also a belief that Galthie’s faith in Willemse is waning, leading to attempts to speed up Emmanuel Meafou’s qualification for France.
Regardless, when Willemse is in shape and firing on all cylinders, it’s a scary prospect to face and be faced with.
Strengths: Work rate, athleticism, skilled
Weaknesses: Injury prone, depth and weight drop if Willemse doesn’t start
3. New Zealand: Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock
The closing partnership with most Test rugby appearances is still going strong, with Retallick and Whitelock surpassing the record set by Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield last year.
Like their previous Springbok counterparts, the New Zealand duo offer a good mix of brutality (Botha and Retallick) and lineout intelligence (Matfield and Whitelock). However, they cannot simply be pigeonholed into those categories as, like most All Blacks, they are comfortable with the ball in hand.
Retallick also has a knack for running excellent support lines to finish tries, but is equally adept at the dark arts of rucks and mauls.
The two are in the latter stages of their careers so a slight dip was inevitable, but their standard is immensely high and higher than most second-row partnerships.
They are also propelled by Scott Barrett, who can easily slip into the tighthead or loosehead blocking role, providing the All Blacks with excellent filler for either player.
Patrick Tuipulotu hasn’t yet reached the heights his talent promises, but he’s still a great option as the number four jumper, while Tupou Vaa’i is a rising star.
Strengths: Experience, extremely balanced players, leadership
Weaknesses: Aging starters and a noticeable decline outside of Barrett
2. Ireland: Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan
There was a lot of hype around Ryan when he got his Test debut for Ireland in 2017, and now he’s lived up to it and is one of the best lockouts in world rugby.
Ryan has continuously grown throughout his career and is now an excellent lineout general, which adds to his insane work rate and leadership skills.
Meanwhile, Beirne was a revelation in the second row for Munster and Ireland, with the transition from loose forward to blocked now a roaring success.
Beirne has an incredible skill set in almost every aspect of the game and adds an unrivaled offensive breaking brilliance in Test rugby.
Iain Henderson and Ryan Baird provide stability and youth coverage in the second row. Meanwhile, the likes of Kieran Treadwell and Joe McCarthy continue to press for selection, keeping the regulars at the top of their game.
Strengths: Pace of work, athleticism, threat of breakdown
Weaknesses: Not as powerful as the other second rows, particularly at tighthead blocking if Ryan isn’t available.
1. South Africa: Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager
Up to this point, we’ve been discussing the key attributes that make a tremendous modern lock, and if you put all these qualities into a supercomputer to produce the ideal second-row partnership, it would spit out something eerily similar to Etzebeth and De Jäger.
The one area of the game where the duo aren’t particularly gifted is their ability to steal the ball. However, this counts for little, as their size and physicality means they can simply crush opponents and secure a turnover through their amazing counter-rucking.
While many teams struggle to find a tighthead block, forward Will Skelton and Willemse, who fits the modern game, the Springboks appear to 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 two are both on the pitch, De Jager is usually the busier bearer with his 2.05m and 125kg frame used to strike opposing defenders. He’s also recently been showing the soft side of him with superb soft touches to open gaps for his teammates. Etzebeth is no slouch in carrying the ball, but often clears rucks when the Boks are in possession, while his athleticism makes him an excellent chaser and competitor for the South African’s box kicks. Let’s put it this way, Etzebeth’s job is to make life as uncomfortable as humanly possible and more often than not she is wildly successful at doing so.
In set pieces, and there are few, if any, contestable top jumpers at the front of Etzebeth’s lineout, and jumping there owned by him is one of the safest bets in world rugby.
With Snyman fit again and set to earn a recall to the Springboks, South Africa have a crazy replacement who will be the envy of every Test side, only adding more world-class talent with Franco Mostert also in the Springbok line-up – never mind , the unexpressed potential of Pieter-Steph du Toit in the second row.
Strengths: Work-rate, brutality, world-class lineout jumpers, rugby IQ
Weaknesses: Lack of threat of theft
Several block combinations were on the verge of making our top five, but fell short.
Wales have some remarkable locks working their way through their ranks but Adam Beard and Alun Wyn Jones are still the best for Warren Gatland. The former international was counting against them, but they are still up there with the best in the business.
Maro Itoje continues to be one of the best blockers in the game, but has yet to have a regular back-row partner for some time. The possible partnership with David Ribbans has the potential to be right near the top of our table.
Remaining in the UK, Richie Gray and Grant Gilchrist were solid for Scotland, with Gray, in particular, hitting sublime form for the team in the final Tests.
Italy’s young duo of Niccolo Cannone and Federico Ruzza impressed during the Six Nations have an extremely high roof, while Australia have colossal potential with Skelton and one of the Arnold brothers, but they haven’t had a stable pair for too long.
TO KNOW MORE: RANKED: Top five most feared front rows in Test rugby
The article RANKED: The five most feared lock pairs in Test rugby first appeared on Planetrugby.com.