The All Blacks selection that's hardest to comprehend
While there were some significant omissions from the first All Blacks squad of the year announced on Monday, the fact that 42 players had the opportunity to wear black last year meant cuts were always inevitable.
Perhaps the bigger surprise, then, is the men who somehow defied the odds to earn selection.
Pita Gus Sowakula started the year with a bang but despite a relative drop in form throughout the Chiefs’ campaign, he has jumped ahead of capped players such as Luke Jacobson and Shannon Frizell in the loose forward pecking order.
And while Finlay Christie has undoubtedly had an excellent season for the Blues, do the All Blacks need two young halfbacks in their squad just one year out from the World Cup?
The biggest shock, however, is the inclusion of loosehead prop Karl Tu’inukuafe – a man who has seemingly been on the outer for a number of seasons and has now made the decision to head offshore, but somehow has secured a place ahead of the likes of Ethan de Groot and Alex Hogman.
The All Blacks selectors have long talked about the need for New Zealand’s front-rowers to be more than just strong at the set-piece, they need to possess well-rounded games that make them threats around the park and are willing to go the extra mile on the pitch – whether that’s hitting rucks, making tackles or trucking the ball up on attack.
After bursting onto the scene in 2018 and effectively entrenching himself as NZ’s first-choice loosehead prop following an injury to Joe Moody, Tu’inukuafe somewhat shockingly wasn’t required by the All Blacks the following season and missed out on selection for the Rugby World Cup.
Coach Steve Hansen made it clear what the selectors had been looking for ahead of the tournament, however:
“In today’s game you need props that can do more than just scrum and lift in the lineout so that’s been our challenge in the last 12 months that we’ve put to our front-rowers and some of them are progressing really well with it and others are struggling,” he said at the squad announcement.
“It’s not that [Tu’inukuafe’s] done anything wrong, it’s just that we’ve said that we want mobile, ball-playing props who can also do their roles.”
In the years since, it’s fair to suggest that Tu’inukuafe has not really reinvented himself as a dynamic, new-age prop and has instead continued to focus on the bread and butter of scrummaging. Accordingly, that’s seen the 29-year-old remain relatively stagnant in the propping pecking order – called upon for extended squads or when injuries have struck without ever really threatening to oust the top front-rowers.
In 2020, Tu’inukuafe earned two starts and two appearances off the bench for the All Blacks in their six-game season, with Blues teammate Hodgman joining Tu’inukufe in the squad as a back-up to the first-choice Moody.
Last year, Tu’inukuafe was one of four looseheads selected for the elongated All Blacks campaign and again managed two starts – but was clearly behind Moody and George Bower on the totem pole. Young Ethan de Groot, meanwhile, made his test debut and was touted as a big name for the future after dismantling many an opposition scrum throughout the 2021 Super Rugby season.
Like Tu’inukuafe, De Groot has some unquestionable talents at the set-piece but still has to develop his work around the park. At just 23 years of age, however, the young Southlander certainly has time in his favour and can be moulded into a potential propping superstar.
Tu’inukuafe, on the other hand, is set to link up with Montpellier ahead of the 2022-23 Top 14 season and won’t be available beyond the Rugby Championship. He certainly won’t feature at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Except for major events like World Cups and British and Irish Lions series, we’ve rarely seen players who have announced their departures overseas earn spots in the national side (although we’ve also rarely seen regular All Blacks head offshore mid-way through a World Cup cycle).
Furthermore, ‘Big Karl’ has been on limited minutes with the Blues this season and has yet to make a start for the Super Rugby Pacific finalists, clocking up nine runs from the bench throughout their successful season to date.
But it’s the strength of the Irish at the set-piece that has seemingly forced the hand of the All Blacks selectors, especially with Moody sidelined for the season through injury.
“Ireland are a very, very strong team, strong set-piece team,” coach Ian Foster said on Monday.
“If you look at our looseheads with George and Aidan, very consistent scrummagers, very reliable in that space but relatively new at the international level and that swung it around for Karl Tu’inukuafe’s selection.
“He is our strongest loosehead scrummager and we think for right now, he’s the best way to support the other two front-rowers.”
While a man like De Groot might be a gun scrummager, it’s not unusual to see young props struggle at times to deal with wily old heads at the set-piece, who are more than happy to employ every trick in the book in order to get the upper hand at the set-piece. 29-year-old Tu’inukuafe, compared to his young counterpart, will be better placed to cope with whatever curve balls are sent his way from the likes of senior men like Tadhg Furlong and Finlay Bealham.
The non-selection will also send a reminder to De Groot that it takes more than just incredible potential to be an All Black.
As a likeable member of the squad with ample experience under his belt, you can appreciate why the selectors might want to keep Karl Tu’inukuafe in their midst for the July series, especially with Joe Moody out for the year. The World Cup is obviously the biggest prize in the game and while taking home the William Webb Ellis Cup in 2023 must be Ian Foster’s primary goal, the All Blacks head coach came under immense pressure last following losses to South Africa, Ireland and France.
Foster will want to ensure that there are no more historic defeats suffered during his tenure, such as a first-ever loss at home to Ireland, and that means planning for next year has to take a little bit of a backseat in the short-term. It might not be the most popular decision, but it’s one that certainly makes sense if you put yourself in Foster’s shoes.
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