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'A much bigger challenge': Young All Blacks out to 'make a statement'

By Tom Vinicombe
Ethan de Groot, Tupou Vaa'i, Josh Lord and Tyrel Lomax. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Photosport)

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With the All Blacks set to roll out a side devoid of many of their first-stringers this weekend, it’s no surprise they’re also fielding two especially inexperienced combinations in the second row and midfield.

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Chiefs teammates Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord will pack down in the No 4 and 5 jerseys to take on Italy this weekend, with the pair boasting just 10  international appearances between them. With Lord only making his debut off the bench against the USA two weeks ago, nine of those appearances come courtesy of Vaa’i.

It’s a similar situation in the midfield, with Quinn Tupaea and Braydon Ennor recalled from the win over the Eagles to again line up at inside and outside centre. While Ennor made his debut in 2019, he made just one appearance that season and missed the test calendar last year thanks to an untimely ACL injury. Tupaea only made his debut at the beginning of 2021, running out against Tonga, and the pair share just eight caps between them.

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While Italy aren’t necessarily the staunchest of challenges, they have ample experience at lock and in the midfield and the individual battles between the Azzurri players and the likes of Vaa’i, Lord, Tupaea and Ennor will be worth the value of a ticket alone.

All Blacks coach Ian Foster has been especially impressed with the professionalism of his two 21-year-old lock, and he sees a great balance to the second row as a whole.

“They’ve played a lot of rugby together when you look through Taranaki and age-group stuff, and also their time at the Chiefs,” Foster said of the paring.

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“I think there’s two different players here. You look at Tupou Vaa’i, he’s been with us from last year through to this year. Every challenge we’ve given him, we’ve been really confident he’s been able to nail it, so I think he’s a growing force. He’s learning to really trust himself and just express himself on the park, and we’ve seen very similar qualities in Josh since he’s come in. He’s a different frame and a slightly different style of lock, but very energetic, very mobile, and I just love his attitude. He’s just come in, he’s spoken his mind, he’s contributed, he’s asked questions, and we’re delighted to be able to get him a start.”

With Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick on tour with the squad and Patrick Tuipulotu and Scott Barrett back home in New Zealand, the All Blacks are quickly building some impressive depth in the second row.

The scenario is slightly different in the midfield, with the first-choice combination of David Havili and Anton Lienert-Brown struggling at times throughout the season. That presents a big opportunity to the likes of Tupaea and Ennor, who Foster believes will develop into very good long-term players for NZ.

“I’m very optimistic,” Foster responded when asked about the pair’s development into test players. “Both Quinn and Braydon have, I think, grown through this tour. They look very settled. I’ll use the word comfortable, not that anyone can really be comfortable here, but they seem to be really confident in themselves.

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“This week, their training was up two cogs from what it was in the USA week, so I think they’ve banked away a lot of confidence from that game, and they know this is going to be a much bigger challenge. I think they see opportunities, they know it’s a big occasion for them, and I’m delighted for them.

“They bring their own little strengths. We’ve got a strong ball-carrier and a great defender and we’ve got a guy who’s an equally good defender but also very, very quick in the way he attacks, so there’s a nice blend there and can’t wait to see it develop.”

Vaa’i, Lord, Tupaea and Ennor are just four of the many inexperienced players who have represented the All Blacks throughout the season and are now on their first tour of the Northern Hemisphere.

Many of those players will have their last chance to impress on the pitch this weekend, with crucial games against Ireland and France likely to demand a first-string side from the All Blacks.

Whether or not the young players actually feature on the park in any given week, however, Foster continues to see growth in their game and in their understanding of what it means to be an international representative.

“[It] seems a long time ago, doesn’t it, that we left New Zealand,” Foster said. “I guess, in rugby terms, in many cases, we’ve seen guys, and this is an analogy, leave as boys and have now become men, and I mean that in a sense of a rugby player.

“There are guys that have grown dramatically through this period, and it’s the time together, the comradeship, I guess, of being on the road and being locked up a little bit. It’s been really tough at times, but it’s also been character-building, and I can’t speak more highly of our leaders, the way they’ve led that programme and being able to grow a lot of players.

“The challenge now is, we’ve done well so far, but we’ve got to finish, and this Saturday I think is vital for this particular group to make a statement that we have learned what we need to learn so far.”

Saturday’s match kicks off at 2:00pm CET (2:00am NZT on Sunday morning).

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