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NZ looseheads have terrible luck

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New Zealand's lost looseheads: from first choice to bust

Of the five players dropped from the All Blacks squad for the Bledisloe tests, Karl Tu’inukuafe can probably count himself as the unluckiest.

Three of the five are inexperienced players who have bright futures ahead of themselves but were probably lucky to make the initial squad in the first place, courtesy of its massive size.

Shannon Frizell, the other ‘experienced’ player to receive the cut had one game to prove to the selectors that he could be the All Blacks go-to blindside flanker for the World Cup and evidently didn’t take his chance.

Tu’inukuafe, however, was given no such opportunity to show that he was match-fit and ready for action.

The modern day prop

A virus meant that the giant Blues prop sat out the final rounds of Super Rugby but was confirmed by Hansen to be eligible for selection against both Argentina and South Africa. Instead, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Atu Moli and Joe Moody were used on the loosehead side of the scrum.

Earlier in the year, the Super Rugby coaches were given the message from the national selectors that they were a little disappointed with the lack of mobility they’d seen from their props on the 2018 end of year tour.

Given that mobility and agility are what the All Blacks coaches are looking for, it’s not too difficult to see why Tu’inukuafe might have been overlooked. At over 130kg, he’s a sizeable man. Tu’inukuafe is excellent at a prop’s core jobs and actually possesses some deft hands when necessary, but he’s probably not going to get around the park as efficiently as some of the other options.

Moli and Angus Ta’avao, in particular, have climbed the ranks ahead of Tu’inukuafe even though their scrummaging is still probably not up to international standard.

It’s a big fall from grace for the former bouncer, who burst onto the scene for the Chiefs last year after injuries befell regular looseheads Mitchell Graham, Aidan Ross, Kane Hames and Moli. Tu’inukuafe ended up playing 16 matches for the defeated quarter-finalists.

Loosehead powerhouse

Tu’inukuafe debuted for New Zealand in June against the touring French side, and his first act after coming off the bench was to monster opposite Cedate Gomes Sa in a scrum. That one set-piece announced to the world that the All Blacks had unearthed a supremely naturally talented scrummager who was ready to make a big impact on the international scene.

Two further appearances off the bench against the French came and went, followed by six straight appearances in the Rugby Championship. Tu’inukuafe earned his first start against Argentina, then backed it up in the final three matches of the competition after incumbent Moody was invalidated thanks to a broken thumb.

Moody returned for the third Bledisloe Cup match but split his eyelid in the build up to the first match of New Zealand’s European tour, which meant Tu’inukuafe resumed his place in the no.1 jersey for the crux matches against England and Ireland.

Tu’inukuafe’s year was capped off by being named on the shortlist for the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year.

Tu’inukuafe’s performances throughout the season meant he was seen as an almost certainty for this year’s World Cup. The one-two punch of Moody and Tu’inukuafe would have been considered one of the best propping combinations in international rugby – but evidently that’s no longer how Hansen and co see it.

Tu’inukuafe’s rise and fall is incredible, but it’s not entirely unique.

The rise of Kane Hames

Head back to 2017 and Moody’s torrid run of injuries meant that he also sat out that season’s end of year tour. Thankfully, the All Blacks had another prop at hand, ready to step into Moody’s sizeable shoes: Kane Hames.

Hames, like Tu’inukuafe, was initially uncontracted to a Super Rugby franchise in the year that he made his international debut. The 2016 season once again saw the Chiefs crippled by front-row injuries, with Pauliasi Manu suffering from a ruptured ACL. Hames was whistled into the squad and made nine appearances.

Kane Hames shows off his ball-playing skills in what has turned out to be his last match of professional rugby to date. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Hames’ international debut came after a minor injury to Moody, which saw the Chief debut off the bench in the first Bledisloe Cup fixture of the year. That was to be Hames’ only international appearance for the season, but things kicked off in a big way in 2017.

Former Highlander Hames was recalled to the All Blacks first when Wyatt Crockett suffered a concussion in the lead up to the second test match against Australia, and again when Moody dislocated his shoulder against Argentina.

Hames came off the pine in that initial match against Australia, with Moody holding down the starting spot. Once Moody was no longer available, Hames took over as the first choice loosehead.

The once unwanted prop started in three matches in that Rugby Championship then did the same on the end of year tour against France, Scotland and Wales. It was a rise to fame that matches Tu’inukuafe’s in its outrageousness, if not its pace.

The silent injury

Unlike Tu’inukuafe, Hames’ fall from grace has been completely unrelated to form. That match against Wales at the end of 2017 is the last professional rugby game that Hames has taken part in. The loosehead suffered a concussion at some point prior to the 2018 Super Rugby season and has been dealing with symptoms ever since.

It’s a tragic result for a man that only a few years ago was possibly eyeing up the 2019 World Cup as his end goal. Whether we ever see Hames on the field again is unknown, but almost two years out of the game doesn’t bode well for his future.

Karl Tu’inukuafe and Kane Hames both asserted themselves on the international scene thanks to injuries to Joe Moody, but it looks like both will now play no role in the All Blacks’ upcoming attempt to win the World Cup for an unprecedented third time in a row. Thankfully for New Zealand, Steve Hansen and co have blooded a number of props throughout the years who are capable of fronting in international rugby, but that will be of no consolation to the men whose dreams have been cut short.

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New Zealand's lost looseheads: from first choice to bust