A new season is just around the corner, and with the 2023 Guinness Six Nations within touching distance, fans are beginning to think about which players will take centre stage this term.
The Northern Hemisphere is home to some of the world’s best second rows, players who despite their physical presence after often underappreciated on the pitch0.
So, with that in mind, let’s have a look at our top five Northern Hemisphere locks heading into the new season.
1. Tadhg Beirne
Tadhg Beirne proved he is one of the world’s top locks during Ireland’s three-Test series against New Zealand this summer.
His brilliance at the breakdown was crucial in all three clashes, as Andy Farrell’s side secured their first series win against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
In the final moments of the third Test, he stole the ball on the ground twice, won another turnover when going through a ruck and intercepted a pass as Ireland wrapped up a 32-22 win.
Capable of playing in the back row, Beirne has shown this year that he is more than physical enough to cope at lock, and his breakdown work is second to none.
With the new season fast approaching, fans can expect much the same from the 30-year-old Munster lock, both on the international and domestic stages.
2. Maro Itoje
Simply put, Maro Itoje is a must-have in any list of the world’s best second rows.
At 27 years old, he is at the peak of his powers and appears set to make a significant impact during the 2022/23 season.
Prior to suffering a head injury in the second Test, Itoje had been typically outstanding on England’s tour of Australia.
He played well in defeat as England fell to a 30-28 loss in the first Test and he looked set to put on another clinic in the engine room during the second.
However, he was subbed off just before half-time following a heavy blow to the head during an attempted tackle on Australia centre Hunter Paisami.
Itoje will be back for the new season, and will have a vital role to play during the 2023 Guinness Six Nations and subsequent Rugby World Cup.
3. Cameron Woki
Had he not suffered a knee injury towards the end of last season, Paul Willemse might well have been at the top of this list, such has his form been over the last 12 months.
His second-row colleague Cameron Woki is a very different kind of player, but has also enjoyed a stellar year, even if he only switched to lock in November.
Better known as a dynamic back-rower when he came through the ranks, Woki made his first appearance at lock in senior rugby against Georgia in the Autumn Nations Series.
He clearly impressed, starting in the same spot a week later in the win against the All Blacks, and doing the same in every match of France’s Grand Slam campaign.
A move to Racing 92 this summer was in part with the aim of playing lock week in, week out at club level, and it feels as though his margin for improvement is immense, even though he is already one of the best lineout jumpers in the game and incredibly effective around the park.
4. Adam Beard
Adam Beard is now Wales’ first-choice second row having shown his grit and determination after being left out of Wayne Pivac’s squad for the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup.
Pivac insisted that he wanted to see Beard develop his all-around game, it was do or die for the 26-year-old from Swansea.
But he showed his hunger to represent Wales and there are few if any who pose more of a threat to opposition rolling mauls, one of the hardest parts of the game to defend.
And we saw that in the historic second Test victory over South Africa where he put in a crunching defensive display, mixing moments of pure class in attack to help his side beat the world champion Springboks 13-12.
With Alun Wyn Jones close to turning 37, Beard has chosen the perfect moment to come into his own. And over the next 12 months, he will be key to Wales’ progress under Pivac.
5. James Ryan
Ireland’s second-row partnership is arguably the best in the world.
We saw that this summer when James Ryan and Beirne went head-to-head with the iconic duo of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, coming out on top during three fascinating fixtures.
Ryan has long been tipped to go all the way to the top, and after missing out on the Lions in 2021, he looks to be getting back to somewhere near his best at the heart of the Ireland pack.
In the third Test Ireland won all their scrums and 87% of their lineouts, with the All Blacks unable to cope with the ferocity of their opponents – sitting at 83% on their own scrums and 75% on their lineouts.
Ryan was crucial to that success, and he will be even more important during the 2023 Guinness Six Nations and subsequent Rugby World Cup.
As laid out above, Paul Willemse would almost certainly be on this list had he not got injured at the end of the season, while teammate Thibaud Flament finished the campaign strongly and impressed in Japan. Wales’ Will Rowlands has enjoyed a very impressive year alongside Beard, while Scottish pair Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray also have strong claims. And in improving Italian team, Niccolò Cannone looks like the most established of the Azzurri second rows.