All Blacks captain Sam Cane admits the loss of lineout boss Sam Whitelock will leave a hole as injuries and the ubiquitous Covid-19 virus combined to create mini-locking crisis on Tuesday.
Whitelock has been ruled out of the second test against Ireland with “delayed onset concussion” and he is also at risk of missing the third test as he completes his 12-day stand-down period in accordance with updated World Rugby rules.
To make matters worse for the All Blacks, his likely replacement Tupou Vaa’i has tested positive to Covid-19, forcing coach Ian Foster to seek New Zealand Rugby board approval – which was granted – to allow him to select Patrick Tuipulotu.
The reshuffle could see Scott Barrett return to the locking position against Ireland in Dunedin on Saturday, with Akira Ioane at No 6 and Tuipulotu on the bench.
“Again, not ideal,” Cane said of the disruptions after training in Dunedin on Tuesday. “Sammy was awesome at the weekend and became the second most capped All Black of all time, which is hugely impressive.
“We’ll no doubt miss his leadership and what he brings, and then Tupou had been playing well all Super Rugby and was hanging out for his opportunity.
“So it’s a tough pill for him to swallow but it’s almost got to the stage where anyone who hasn’t had it [Covid-19]… it’s lurking and it’s going to strike soon and poor ‘Tuups’ had to get it this week.
“But in terms of replacements we’ve got a 40-odd test All Black in Patrick Tuipulotu to bring in. He trained with us last week too which was awesome. He’s up to speed and has slipped in pretty seamlessly.”
Whitelock’s symptoms were self-reported after the All Blacks’ 42-19 win in the first test at Eden Park – an act of leadership in itself – and the form of the Crusaders veteran has soared over the past few weeks.
Cane said his absence means the All Blacks will turn to Brodie Retallick to run the lineout.
“Sammy runs our lineout particularly well and in Brodie takes over that mantle,” Cane said. “He did that for the majority of the Rugby Championship last year so he’s really looking forward to doing that.
“It’s crazy that he’s played 90-odd tests and his locking partner has always been the one that’s run the lineout, but he’s done it at Super Rugby time and time again. But other than that business as usual.
“It’s not just the last week [the disruptions] it’s probably been the last 18 months since Covid struck. You learn to live with it and roll with the punches.
“It’s impressive the way it doesn’t fluster the boys. They know someone else will step up and that’s the way it is again.”
Despite the loss of Whitelock and Vaa’i, Cane said the All Blacks would need to lift on Saturday to withstand the expected response by Ireland.
“We were lucky we managed to have a real good 20 minutes in the back end of the first half [at Eden Park] when we put some points on but if you look at the rest of the test it was fairly even,” he said.
“We know they’ll come out and will have lifted their game from last week.”
Highlanders lock Josh Dickson and flanker Shannon Frizell trained with the All Blacks on Tuesday morning as injury cover, but are not part of the official squad.