When he was helped off the pitch, huge body hunched over, right arm cradling his left and mouth agape from the sheer agony of a dislocated shoulder, New Zealand held its collective breath at the sight of their felled monster.
A World Cup without Brodie Retallick? The All Blacks without their destructive lynchpin? Well, why wouldn’t a nation fret?
For here was a man so absolutely key to the champions’ hopes of a third straight world title that, even while no-one could be sure Retallick would be fully recovered from the injury caused during that South Africa draw, Steve Hansen took the plunge and selected him for Japan anyway. Even knowing that he would probably not be fit for any of the matches in an unthreatening group stage, the coach gambled that he would be ready for the real fray, even if potentially undercooked, by the quarter-finals.
And there was good reason for this. This 2019 New Zealand squad, as ever, is blessed with sumptuous talent, from the world’s best scrum-half, Aaron Smith, to that mighty trio seeking a record third winner’s medal — captain Kieran Read, magician of a centre Sonny Bill Williams, and Retallick’s second-row partner in mayhem, Sam Whitelock.
It also features the thrusting back row man of the moment Ardie Savea, Super Rugby’s leading try scorer of 2019, young flyer Sevu Reece, a rejuvenated class act in Ben Smith and a two-time world player of the year in Beauden Barrett.
Yet forget Beauden’s dazzle and Read’s inspiration for a moment. Isn’t it Retallick who now best represents the power and glory of these All Blacks? As befits a keen amateur mechanic who was brought up to know his way around souping up classic vehicles, he’s the one who provides the main engine, the horsepower, and the oil for this 2019 juggernaut.
He’s a fascinating mix; the kind of straightforward, old-fashioned bruiser that New Zealand has always adored in its locks — you can almost hear the late, great ‘Pinetree’ Colin Meads purring in appreciation — while simultaneously executing the new roles demanded of the modern, complete tight-five powerhouse with élan.
“He can score tries, he tackles, he poaches, he’s stealing lineouts, he’s winning lineouts. Yeah, he’s making us look bad now, the rest of us,” noted Devin Toner with a rueful smile last year.
What a mix. Retallick seems like an unshowy throwback to a more uncomplicated All Blacks age but also a throw forward to what a third Millennium player can be, a giant whose non-stop athleticism can see him late in the game rampage 30 metres for a try after chucking in a preposterous dummy to leave his defending fly-half floundering. That try against Australia last year to cap Retallick’s performance for the ages? It still makes you want to laugh out loud for its audacity.
Voted the year’s top try, it was accompanied by a momentary bit of showboating that would doubtless have brought the odd ‘tut, tut’ from the traditionalists not impressed with a player raising his arm in triumph before he’d even crossed the line.
Yet even if that celebration seemed a mite out of character, it perhaps also demonstrated just how much Retallick is in love with his job. He’s not the only All Black who, as NZR Chief Executive Steve Tew says, “puts his body on the line each and every time he plays” but it’s his evident relish for everything from the physical collisions to the odd, fancy offload that makes it seem as if he’s having such a whale of a time out there.
Of course, locks are supposed to be the unglamorous workhorses, not the shiny Frankels. There’s a lovely clip on the All Blacks website of Retallick and Whitelock musing comically about why second row behemoths like them never landed the lucrative advertising gigs, with big Sam suggesting to his waywardly-toothed partner: “Hey, you ever thought about Colgate, with your big gnashers there?” To which Retallick nods: “Yeah, I guess the crockery’s not the best shape, so if anybody wanted to help out with them, I’d be more than happy to step up….if anybody’s out there.”
The truth is, though, that Retallick has been a star, and definitely a cult figure in New Zealand rugby, ever since he was voted in 2014 as the youngest-ever world player of the year at just 23. Though he’s not been on the short-list in subsequent years, he darn well ought to have been.
For while sport has its fair share of Special Ones and Chosen Ones, how about this? “Retallick is One from outer space,” reckoned Hansen, not usually one for eulogising, last year.
Are we talking here about the world’s finest rugby player and the most influential in this tournament? The bare stats are compelling. Of all the players in this World Cup who’ve played 20 tests or more, Retallick’s 92.20% success rate is better than anybody’s.
Of the 77 tests he’s played since making his debut against Ireland in Auckland in June 2012, the All Blacks have lost only four — to England at Twickenham in 2012, to Australia in Sydney 2015, to the Lions in Wellington 2017 and, of course, the historic defeat by Ireland at the Aviva last year. Yet in the 24 matches that Retallick didn’t play for them over that same period, the All Blacks lost five. The difference is stark; when he’s part of the team, there’s effectively a one in 13 chance of them losing; when he’s not there, it’s more like one in five. The bottom line is that Hansen’s alien is their comfort blanket.
And when you consider this extraordinary record, don’t discount just how much of it stems from Retallick’s burning desire to win, which is instilled mainly by not wishing to let any of his teammates down.
“I guess that’s what really drives me,” he said, back in that all-conquering 2014 season when he didn’t experience a single defeat with the All Blacks. “I don’t want to be that person who gets left behind and causes the team to lose, that’s a really big thing for me.”
He seems so manically driven out there, that it’s hard to picture him as the “low-key guy” who’ll tell you when in bespectacled mode that he “just likes to chill out and enjoy life.” Remember that splendid moment at a pre-Test news conference in 2014 when, asked to name any of his England opponents, Retallick could only come up with “Michael Laws”, thus mixing up a New Zealand radio host with Courtney Lawes? Well, he wasn’t being facetious; it was just Brodie being Brodie.
New Zealanders had to chuckle. They like their sports heroes to come packaged with quiet strength, humility and understated humour. They like to see blokes they can relate to. Brodie fits that bill, too; the Metallica fan who likes his rock music loud - “Retallica…Monster of lock” as the T-shirt legend has it — and his cars fast.
Growing up near Christchurch, he’s from one of those outdoor-loving, rugby-mad families that still seem to be the enviable bedrock of New Zealand rugby. He’s one of eight players in the squad who have another All Black in the family, his uncle John Ashworth having propped the New Zealand scrum on 52 occasions. Presumably, scrumming down on Christmas Day one-on-one in your backyard with the bloke who once famously stamped all over JPR Williams is a fearful education in itself.
Retallick is someone who plays with such intensity that he almost makes it look as if every game could be his last out there, yet off the pitch he’s just the dad of two who knows how to have a bit of fun. While the nation was fretting about his fitness last month, he didn’t mind one bit adding to their anxiety by going sledding in the snow on Mount Ruapehu. “Jesus Brodie keep that shoulder safe mate!!!!” came the wails on social media.
He did and he’s back in business, in theory at the peak of his powers at 28, recovering well and even suggesting that he might be ready to return to action before the end of the group stages. That would then raise the alarming prospect that, having picked up a full head of steam, Ireland just might be unlucky enough to run into a peak Retallick in the quarter-finals. And just ask Hansen how good that is.
Yes, out of this world.