'It can be done': Ethan de Groot's message to Southlanders following maiden All Blacks call-up
De Groot is one of five uncapped players in the All Blacks side to face Tonga and Fiji in next month’s test series, and is one of four players who have been included in the squad for the first time in their careers.
Standing at 1.90m and 122kg, De Groot was a standout at the scrum for the Highlanders, while All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree and All Blacks selector Grant Fox both told The Breakdown they were impressed with his defensive work rate.
Even with those attributes in his repertoire, De Groot conceded he couldn’t fathom he had made the All Blacks, which he said led to his phone “vibrating for two hours” with congratulatory messages.
“Didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, but I’m feeling excited,” he told media on Tuesday.
Excitement isn’t the only emotion De Groot has had to deal with over the past 24 hours as he revealed there is a sense of nervousness as he prepares to link up with the national squad for a three-day training camp in south Auckland on Wednesday.
However, some messages of reassurance from Highlanders, and now All Blacks, teammate Aaron Smith have helped ease De Groot’s jitters.
“I was talking to Aaron this morning. He just said go up there, be myself, don’t panic. He’s got my back.”
By being selected in the current All Blacks squad, De Groot becomes the first Southland player to earn national honours since Lima Sopoaga in 2017.
De Groot is different to Sopoaga, though. He’s also different to Southland’s other most recent All Black, Elliot Dixon. Neither of those players were born and raised a Southlander like De Groot was.
Sopoaga joined the Stags in 2014, the year before his All Blacks debut, after spending his early years representing his home province of Wellington.
The first All Blacks squad of the year has been named for next month’s test series against Tonga and Fiji, and there is no shortage of talking points about the side. #AllBlacks https://t.co/lAUKuRYL7a
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Dixon, meanwhile, spent his entire provincial career with Southland, but only moved southwards in search of better opportunities in professional rugby after coming through the ranks in Christchurch as a schoolboy.
De Groot doesn’t have that kind of background. Unlike those two, he is a true Southlander who was born into a farming family in Gore and was schooled at Southland Boys’ High School in Invercargill.
A product of Southland and Highlanders age-grade teams, De Groot has worked his way through the ranks to establish himself at provincial level with the Stags, and then with the Highlanders in Super Rugby.
Before him, the most recent Southlander to have trekked a similar path was Invercargill born-and-bred Jamie Mackintosh, whose sole test appearance for the All Blacks came in 2008.
That means Southlanders have had to wait 13 years before one of their own – someone who was brought into and stayed in their system from a young age – was named in the All Blacks.
Such a lengthy spell without any national representatives, among other things, has hardly made Southland an attractive destination for aspiring rugby players, with many opting for more sought-after schools and rugby programs further north.
However, De Groot has a message for any youngsters, and their parents, within the Southland region who may be weighing up a move away to further their rugby prospects.
“I would like to think I’ve inspired parents and kids to stay in Southland and do their schooling in Southland,” he said.
“There is a pathway. It is tough and you’re not in the limelight, but it can be done.
“A lot of parents send their kids away out of the province to do their schooling and then they go on from there, but hopefully I’ve inspired some people to stick to their roots. It can be done.”
A more mature McKenzie is one of five players battling for a role across the first five and fullback positions in the new All Blacks squad. https://t.co/adPgVauOdP
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De Groot’s inclusion in the All Blacks could be the catalyst for further Southland-produced players to feature in the test arena over the coming years.
After all, it was Mackintosh’s selection in the All Blacks more than a decade ago that made him an idol of De Groot’s during his childhood.
“Growing up, my favourite player was Carl Hayman and obviously Whoppa [Mackintosh] from Southland. Growing up, I loved watching the Stags boys,” De Groot said.
“There hasn’t been a hell of a lot [of Southland players] since those guys sitting where I am now, so to follow in their footsteps is pretty special.”
De Groot said there is a sense of mixed emotions within Southland’s fanbase over his selection in the All Blacks.
“The old Staggy supporters are happy and they’re sad. They’re happy that they’ve got an All Black from the region and they’re also sad I won’t be stripping in the maroon and gold this year.”
While Southland will be without their newest star for the upcoming NPC campaign, De Groot will only have a short window to ready himself for a test debut that could come as early as next Saturday when the All Blacks host Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium.
Whether he will make his first appearance in the black jersey then, in one of the two tests against Fiji, or even in the Rugby Championship later on in the year, De Groot will have achieved what every young Southland footy player has dreamed of.
“It’s just a dream come true. Any kid in New Zealand that plays footy wants to be an All Black, so I just can’t believe it’s happened.”
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