By Nick Mulvenney
TOKYO (Reuters) – It’s not obligatory for a Rugby World Cup-winning team to have an all-time great at lock but the history of the tournament shows that it certainly doesn’t hurt.
From Australia captain John Eales in 1999 to England skipper Martin Johnson in 2003, the second-row enforcer has often played an integral role in inspiring a team through the hard yards of the latter stages of the tournament.
Leader, peacemaker and sometimes troublemaker, lineout jumper, scrum pusher, maul setter and wrecker, the modern lock forward can have a huge influence on a match.
The current generation of All Blacks have set the benchmark, as they do in so many ways, with not one but two great locks in their engine room.
On Saturday, Sam Whitelock will look to take another step towards his third straight world title, while his second row partner and former World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick is gunning for his second winners’ medal in Japan.
They go up against England’s Maro Itoje, who at 24 has already shown he might have the stuff to eventually become one of the greats of the game.
It is in Sunday’s second semi-final, however, where the role of inspirational lock might be more evident with Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones and Springbok warrior Eben Etzebeth going head-to-head.
The world’s most capped lock forward, the 34-year-old Jones will lead Wales out on Sunday in his 142nd test looking to keep alive his hopes of winning the one prize in international rugby that has eluded him.
A three-times British and Irish Lions tourist – he is one of the few Lions players to have played in test victories over all three southern hemisphere powers – Jones won his third Grand Slam with Wales this year.
He was named Six Nations Player of the Tournament and Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards said, if anything, he was improving with age.
“Alun Wyn’s an incredible competitor, he’s 6ft 6in, he’s fast,” said the Englishman.
“He’s unbelievably competitive and he’s unbelievably tough. He’s a very, very brave person. He sets the example for everybody.
“He’s developed, I personally think now he’s a better player than he’s ever been. Long may he continue to be. One of the best players I’ve ever coached without a doubt.”
Etzebeth is two inches taller and seven years younger but has already won 83 caps and is hugely influential in the Springboks side, according to team mate Faf de Klerk.
“Eben has so much experience, he’s not an old guy, but he’s got so much experience, he’s got so many caps behind him and he’s played with a lot of experienced guys,” said the scrumhalf.
“In terms of mauling and scrumwise, he has a massive influence on that and he is always a great contester in the lineout. Great carrier, always gets us on the front foot.”
De Klerk said Etzebeth was the guy he looked for if he felt the team needed a bit of go-forward and someone who led by example.
“He’s like a go-to guy if you need someone to put their hand up. He’s always keen to work hard, he’s also now working had on taking high balls so he’s becoming the complete player,” he added.
“So, to have a guy like that in the team is absolutely amazing and I think for a lot of guys around him, he sets the standard, so they need to keep up.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)