'A player for the future': The All Blacks youngsters impressing Ian Foster
The headlines surrounding the team naming for the first All Blacks test of the end-of-year tour are, understandably, focused on the selection of uncapped rookie Josh Lord.
The 20-year-old lock has just five Super Rugby caps to his name and was far down most people’s pecking order when it came to ranking New Zealand’s second rowers in contention for All Blacks selection.
Nevertheless, Lord has found himself with the All Blacks squad on their tour of the United States and Europe, and, less than a week with being part of the team’s set-up, has been named to make his test debut from the bench against the USA Eagles.
It’s no surprise, then, that much of the focus will be placed on Lord and his sudden rise from Super Rugby obscurity to international rugby, but this test holds plenty of significance for a raft of others within the All Blacks camp.
In addition to Lord’s imminent test debut, plenty of eyes will also be fixated on the returns of Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Dane Coles and, to a lesser extent, Richie Mo’unga following lengthy spells outside of the squad for various reasons.
All four men play key roles within the squad, both on and off the field, and their performances will be put under the microscope after they missed most, if not all, of the Rugby Championship either through injury or baby duties.
Then there are the selections of Braydon Ennor, who finally gets his first start for the All Blacks following a wretched run of injuries two years after his test debut, and George Bridge, called back into the side following a horror showing against the Springboks in Townsville a month ago.
Finlay Christie’s selection at halfback for his first test start also warrants media attention, but it’s head coach Ian Foster’s decision to pick one of the most inexperienced members of his squad in this week’s team that may end up turning the most heads.
Three months after his last test appearance – a bench showing against Fiji in Hamilton a week following his test debut in front of a home crowd in Dunedin – Ethan de Groot will finally make another outing for the All Blacks.
His selection in the starting lineup at loosehead prop comes after he failed to take to the field at all in the Rugby Championship due to a persistent neck injury.
The 23-year-old’s inclusion in the travelling squad only came due to the fact that he was acting as cover for Joe Moody, who was still recovering from a foot injury sustained during the Super Rugby campaign.
De Groot’s absence was frustrating for some fans, particularly those with ties to the Highlanders and Southland, but nobody would have been as annoyed at the lack of game time as the man himself.
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“It is frustrating. It’s all part of it. People have it worse, but just gotta make the days count, not count the days,” De Groot told reporters on Friday of his recent injury woes in typically understated fashion from Washington DC.
“I feel like I’m in the best team in the world. I’ve got awesome coaches. I’m still learning every day. I’m still a pup in scrumming terms or front row terms, so I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I’ve got the right guys to teach me.”
It seems that injury-enforced time off has allowed De Groot to harness the learnings he has attained from the All Blacks coaches and earn a place in the New Zealand side to play at FedEx Field in the American capital on Sunday morning [NZ time].
His selection in the No 1 jersey is reflective of not only that, but also the vision Foster has of his propping prodigy, who could make up for lost game time with further showings on this tour if he can produce a compelling display in two days’ time.
“I’ve seen him grow through this period,” Foster, labelled this fixture as a “key game” for the likes of De Groot who have missed a string of matches through injury, said.
“He went through a period of frustration when he couldn’t play, particularly when he couldn’t train with his neck. He keeps wanting to jump in there and do stuff. You can’t question his attitude and desire to play.
“Like all players when they’re coming back from injury, they get a bit fidgety and they just want to play, but he’s trained well to play, prepared well, and excited about him.
“He’s very much, I think, a player for the future and very strong and just can’t wait to get out there, so kind of felt it was better to give him the starting jersey.
“There’s a lot of energy there and I think he was getting pretty fidgety on the bench because he’s waited a long time for it, but thoroughly deserves a start.”
The inclusion of De Groot in the starting team hasn’t entirely overshadowed the selection of Lord, though, as Foster reserved plenty of praise for the youngest member of his squad.
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“He’s settled in really, really well. He just seems to be a day-at-a-time type man and I love that. He just seems to focus on what he needs to do today, not trying to overcomplicate things,” Foster said.
“He’s rooming with Sammy Whitelock, which is probably a good place for him to start in terms of learning the game. He’s a confident young man.
“Clearly it’ll be an exciting, nervous time for him when he pulls on that black jersey and gets a chance to run out, but what we’ve seen is someone we feel is right to deal with that.
“This tour, we selected on the basis of just to start working with him and seeing where we feel we can get him and we’ve seen nothing to contradict that.”
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