All Blacks rookie asks coach for debut against Fiji this weekend
All Blacks rookie Ethan de Groot is hoping to make his test debut in front of a home crowd at Forsyth Barr Stadium this weekend.
In fact, the uncapped prop is so eager to don the black jersey for the first time in his brief professional career that he asked assistant coach John Plumtree to be included in the match day side to play Fiji in Dunedin on Saturday.
A Southlander who plies his trade for the Highlanders in Super Rugby, numerous local supporters of de Groot are expected at the match this weekend, but Plumtree kept his cards close to his chest when confronted with the 22-year-old’s request.
“I think he said to me yesterday the whole of Gore is coming up so he’d be appreciative if he could be selected, but I said, ‘You’ll have to wait til Thursday, buddy’,” Plumtree told media on Tuesday.
It wouldn’t be out of the question to see de Groot make his first appearance in international rugby this weekend, though, given how much he has impressed the All Blacks coaches since he arrived in camp two weeks ago.
“He’s really just jumping out of his skin to play and it’s great to have that type of young enthusiasm in the team. He’s been really good with us and he’s improving all the time,” Plumtree said.
Also working in de Groot’s favour is the fact that the New Zealand coaching staff have been open about wanting to see their whole squad get a run over the course of the July test window.
Given he didn’t feature in the All Blacks’ 102-0 thumping of Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland last weekend, de Groot is likely to play in one of the two, if not both, tests against Fiji over the coming week-and-a-half.
If he impresses as much in those matches as he has done off the field over the past fortnight, de Groot could force his way into the All Blacks’ full-strength match day side in the opening Bledisloe Cup test against the Wallabies at Eden Park on August 7.
“We’ll make a few changes,” Plumtree said. “We’ve got a squad that’s pretty hungry to impress and we’ve got one more game after this before we get into the Bleds, so these players all want to have a crack and we want to give them that opportunity.”
This window of opportunity could also see new All Blacks hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho thrust into mixer as early as this weekend after he was called into the squad as injury cover for the concussed Asafo Aumua.
Plumtree said the uncapped 23-year-old was a prospect the All Blacks selectors had kept track of for a long time given the potential he had shown at Super Rugby level with the Chiefs.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 6, 2021
“We’re pretty excited with how he played for the Chiefs consistently through the year. Thought his throwing improved and just his set piece skills, so definitely a guy we’re going to keep an eye on and one for the future.”
Plumtree wasn’t so keen to address the implications Taukei’aho’s selection for the All Blacks might have on a potential test career for Tonga, though.
Born and raised in the Pacific Island nation, Taukei’aho moved to New Zealand after accepting a rugby scholarship to attend St Paul’s Collegiate in Hamilton in 2013, a year after he toured the country with the Tonga U15 team.
Since then, he has gone on to play for New Zealand Schools, Waikato and the Chiefs, and he could soon add the All Blacks to that list.
However, his inclusion in the All Blacks may draw the ire of some critics in the wake of Tonga’s pummelling at the hands of the New Zealanders as World Rugby’s strict eligibility laws come under scrutiny once again.
Deprived of many of their top players, due to global travel restrictions and players of Tongan heritage opting to play for tier one nations, ‘Ikale Tahi were drastically under-prepared and under-resourced for their clash against the All Blacks.
Forced to field 13 debutants, many of whom have spent this year playing club rugby at grassroots level across New Zealand, Tonga were out-classed in all aspects as the All Blacks clocked a century of points for the first time since 2008.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 6, 2021
Calls have subsequently been made by the rugby public for World Rugby to relax its eligibility laws to allow Tonga, and the other Pacific Island nations, to select their best players to prevent such blowouts from occurring again.
Some may view Taukei’aho’s selection by the All Blacks as counter-productive to achieving such equity in the test arena, but Plumtree said the onus was on the player himself to choose which country he wants to represent.
“I haven’t really given that too much thought, but, right now, I think he’s signed a new contract with the Chiefs, his future’s in New Zealand,” Plumtree said.
“He certainly is a player we’ve been watching, so ultimately, at the end of the day, he’ll choose which country he plays for, but he’s been pretty impressive.”
Meanwhile, Plumtree confirmed loose forward Shannon Frizell has shaken off an ankle injury to become available for selection this week, while Ardie Savea (knee) and Anton Lienert-Brown (elbow) are continuing to recover from their respective injuries.
The news isn’t so positive for Dalton Papalii, though, as a calf injury sustained in the victory over Tonga could keep him out of the selection equation for this weekend’s match.
The All Blacks will name their side to face Fiji on Thursday morning, while the match is scheduled to kick-off on Saturday at 7:05pm NZT.
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