Retallick dislocated his left shoulder in July against South Africa. But such is his value that the lock was picked in New Zealand’s squad for his second Rugby World Cup in expectation he would be available for the quarterfinals. He has become available two weeks ahead of schedule, and his teammates know he’s ready.
Because he’s been a pest more than usual in training sessions. As his shoulder has improved, Retallick has been helping out the opposing team against the starting All Blacks in game scenarios. And the starters, used to having Retallick on their side for seven years, have not enjoyed it. Retallick takes the game scenarios so seriously that he also practices gamesmanship. It doesn’t matter that they’re teammates; to him they’re on the other side, so he niggles with pulls, tugs, pushes, and pokes.
“He’s been annoying the last couple of weeks,” stand-in captain Sam Whitelock says. Retallick and Whitelock will appear together in the second row for a 52nd test. In test rugby, they rank behind only South Africa's Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, who started together 60 times.
“He’s definitely annoying (in training) at lineout time, maul time, breakdown,” Whitelock adds. “I know it (annoys) the halfbacks a little bit when they pass and he gives them a wee push or pull of an arm. They’re the guys who are probably happiest to see him out there. It's going to be good having him back on the same side, and not annoying us.”
Scrumhalf Aaron Smith agrees: “It's good to see him back in that niggly state. “When he's in the defensive team, he takes you out after the play, quickly tugs you. I always tell him, ‘Leave my forearms alone.’ He always gets 9s, he’s got such long arms. You can tell he’s hungry and working really hard. He carries a lot of mana (respect) in this team.”
Asked why he does it, Retallick smiles. “I like annoying the ones that bite pretty easy to get a reaction,” he says. Namibia has promised to be annoying, too. “We have huge respect for New Zealand,” Namibia coach Phil Davies says, “but we want to go out there and make it as difficult as we possibly can and compete for 80 minutes.”
The Namibians have lost to Italy 47-22 and to South Africa 57-3, and want to repeat the good account they gave in their only previous match with the All Blacks, a 58-14 loss in the 2015 World Cup at the London Olympic Stadium.
There’s plenty of incentive for New Zealand with the chance to confirm a quarterfinals spot with a third win in three Pool B games. There’s also some relief that the game has an early afternoon start. The evening games have been hindered by increasingly humid conditions, making the ball more slick the longer the game goes.
It's why the All Blacks, as they tore apart Canada 63-0 on Wednesday under the roof in Oita, scored most of their points in the first and third quarters. Coach Steve Hansen wasn't alarmed by the handing errors.
“We want to improve upon it but you can't do more than train with a wet ball, which we've been doing the whole time we've been here. It's incredibly difficult when you have someone smashing you when you're catching it and the ball is slippery like a piece of soap. You just have to accept from time to time you’re going to drop it.
"We handled the ball 400 times and I think we only dropped it 12 (times against Canada). On average, we will have four knock-ons in a game; in this one, we only had five. We've never handled the ball that many times. You can make a big thing out of it or you can recognize its going to be difficult and be a little more secure with the ball going into contact. We just have to work hard to eliminate mistakes.”
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