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OPINION: Depth at lock runneth over

Tom Donnelly

ONE OF the real positives to emerge from the 2009 season is the sudden depth at lock. Put simply, the number of quality options New Zealand rugby has in second row has never looked better.

And that’s a good thing, as far as  Yours Truely is concerned, because there was a time when the cupboard was looking a little sparse and the lineout a tad shaky.

One only has to cast their mind back a season or two when Chris Jack, Greg Rawlinson, Troy Flavell, Keith Robinson and James Ryan – all of whom had worn the black jersey – announced they were either cashing up and heading to greener pastures overseas or pulling the pin on their respective careers.

That left a gaping hole, and although Graham Henry and co. were able to fill the void, there was a feeling that if injuries struck, the selectors would be scrapping the bottom of the barrel to find suitable replacements to do the business.

Fortunately those fears have been alleviated following the emergence of some fantastic exponents of second row play this year.

Top of the list would be Otago and Highlanders beanpole Tom Donnelly.

Although the tough-as-teak southerner has been on the scene since 2002 and has come close to cracking the national side in the last couple of seasons, it was this year he came of age and showed his wares after being gifted a chance against the Wallabies in the final Tri Nations match of the season.

The 28-year-old grabbed the opportunity with both hands, bringing some much-needed organisational skills, simplicity and stability to what had been a farcical All Black lineout display up until that point by doing the type of stuff he had been doing at super and provincial level for a number of years.

The fact the men in black dominated the airways during their recent European jaunt had much to do with Donnelly, who has made every post a winner in his six tests since his debut at the Cake Tin and is now an integral cog in the All Black machine.

Brad Thorn

On the subject of integral cogs, one cannot look past Brad Thorn, who in his second season of his second All Black coming continued to produce consistent displays that defy his 34 years of age.

NZ Rugby World editor Gregor Paul named the former Brisbane Broncos star as the player of the tour and described him as “the glue that held the All Blacks together” in December/January’s issue of the magazine.

It is a pretty accurate assessment, for not only did Thorn perform strongly on tour, his heavy workload in the trenches, around the fringes and up the guts were at the fore during all 14 internationals the All Blacks played this year.

The fact he also played every minute of every test, except for the final 15 minutes against the Frogs in Marseilles, was a testament to his ability and value to the team.

So inspirational were Thorn’s performances in the black jersey, it is hard to believe the second rower was not nominated for the big gong at last week’s Steinlarger Rugby Awards.

Another to have caught the eye with some scintillating displays was young Isaac Ross, who, after initially struggling to buy a start for the Crusaders, was an All Black by the end of the Super 14.

Isaac Ross

The son of former All Black Jock did a superb job deputising for the injured Ali Williams in his debut season and by the time the Tri Nations rolled around, he had become well known for his mobility, aerial prowess and honest attitude.

His career may have stalled somewhat after being unfairly dropped for the final Tri Nations test and then being left at home to bulk up while the All Blacks jetted to Europe, but the 24-year-old looks a world class player in the making and it will be interesting to see how he comes back in 2010.

Others on the comeback trail include ‘Comical Ali’ and Hawke’s Bay lock Bryn Evans, who like Ross, could not crack the Hurricanes starting XV, but did enough in his limited appearances to impress the three wise men with his skill set and earn two caps for the All Blacks before injury curtailed his season.

Throw All Black tourists Anthony Boric and Jason Eaton – as well as proven performers like Jeremy Thrush, Craig Clarke, Kevin O’Neil, Josh Bekhuis, Hayden Triggs and the returning Jack – into the mix and it appears our stocks in the locking department are overflowing.

All of which means messers Henry, Hansen and Smith have some difficult decisions to make as they look ahead with one eye to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

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