'A little bit of a mixed bag': How the All Blacks' inexperienced props sized up
When the All Blacks named their first squad for 2022, there were two somewhat surprising inclusions in the front row.
Karl Tu’inukuafe – regarded as perhaps the best scrummager in New Zealand – was the biggest shock, given the 29-year-old is heading overseas later this year and had only featured in small bursts for the Blues this year while his Super Rugby teammate, Nepo Laulala, was also considered as somewhat of a lucky inclusion, given the comments over the past few years out of the national selectors that props need to be more dynamic around the park. Laulala, for all his abilities at the set-piece, is certainly not an explosive player and despite his experience, was assumed to be falling down the pecking order.
“Ireland are a very, very strong team, strong set-piece team,” he said at the time.
“If you look at our looseheads with George [Bower] and Aidan [Ross], very consistent scrummagers, very reliable in that space but relatively new at the international level and that swung it around for Karl Tu’inukuafe’s selection.
“He is our strongest loosehead scrummager and we think for right now, he’s the best way to support the other two front-rowers.”
Come the first test between New Zealand and Ireland, however, neither Tu’inukuafe nor Laulala were anywhere to be found in the starting line-up. Instead, the “inexperienced” Bower was named to square up with arguably the best tighthead prop in the world, Tadhg Furlong, and Ofa Tuungafasi was given the nod in the No 3 jersey.
Bower, ahead of the clash, boasted just 11 test caps to his name – and just five starts. Tuungafasi, meanwhile, has had plenty of experience in the black jersey and is nearing a half-century of appearances but has made just six as the starting tighthead.
Against the likes of Andrew Porter and Furlong, however, Bower and Tuungafasi more than held their own. The first two scrum penalties of the game went Tuungafasi’s way and although the scrum was unstable at the best of times, momentum certainly seemed to favour the All Blacks.
Still, NZ captain Sam Cane acknowledged after the eventual 42-19 victory that there was still plenty of work to be done in the set-piece.
“Obviously, we wanted to front up at the set-piece first and foremost and then collisions,” he said after the match. “Our set-piece was a little bit of a mixed bag; I think we probably had a little bit of scrum dominance at times but still not quite where we want it to be. But it was a good start and we’ll identify a few things in there no doubt and look to get better next week.”
Bower, who saw 60 minutes of action at Eden Park, echoed Cane’s sentiments.
“[There were] a few good pictures there that we got today but also a few key learnings that we can take away,” said the 30-year-old. “I just have a feeling in that second test, they’ll just come hissing and they’ll definitely pick up their game and pick up their set-piece.
“We knew we had to pressure their source there, which was their scrum and lineout, and there were a few times we did – but there was obviously a few times we could have been better in areas there.”
With first-choice loosehead Joe Moody out for the year, Bower now has the opportunity to lock down a place in the matchday 23 ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup. With the likes of Aidan Ross and Ethan de Groot snapping at his heels at the national level, however, and Tu’inukuafe remaining on standby, there are no guarantees.
Tuungafasi, meanwhile, is competing with Ta’avao and Laulala – and Tyrel Lomax has also temporarily joined the squad as cover for Laulala who, as it turns out is suffering from a sore neck.
The All Blacks will take on Ireland in their second of three tests at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin next Saturday.
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