The All Blacks selection that's hardest to wrap your head around
Ahead of Ian Foster unveiling the latest All Blacks squad of the year to contest the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship, it was already expected there would be changes to the team.
Following Saturday’s win over Fiji, Foster revealed that returns from injury were nearing for props Ofa Tuungafasi and Joe Moody, who missed the entirety of the July series.
The All Blacks named eight props for their squad to take on Tonga and Fiji. Experienced loosehead Karl Tu’inukuafe was selected alongside rookies George Bower and Ethan de Groot while Nepo Laulala, Tyrel Lomax and the returning Angus Ta’avao were named as tighthead options.
With specialist loosehead Moody and the multi-talented Tuungafasi now available for selection, it would have made sense for Foster to drop one prop from each side of the scrum for The Rugby Championship – but that’s not what happened.
Instead, Bower and De Groot were both omitted from the 36-man squad (although Bower has been retained as an injury replacement until Moody returns to full fitness).
While Tuungafasi is capable of playing on both sides of the scrum, it’s in the No 3 jersey where’s he’s been almost exclusively employed over the past 18 months.
In fact, not since 2019 has the 29-year-old start a match wearing No 1 at any level of the professional game – although he did come off the bench and slot into the tighthead role on two occasions throughout this year’s Super Rugby campaign with the Blues.
With both Bower and De Groot axed from the All Blacks squad, however, it appears that the selectors now see Tuungafasi as someone capable of stepping back into the loosehead role that he filled from the bench throughout the 2019 World Cup.
The decision, however, does raise some questions.
Many considered Tyrel Lomax a very lucky inclusion in the first All Blacks squad of the year, given his disappointing form throughout the Super Rugby season.
Ethan de Groot finished the 2020 season weighing 135 kilograms. Six months on and 10 kilos lighter, the 22-year-old is now an All Black.
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) June 23, 2021
The 25-year-old was well and truly accounted for at the scrums by a number of New Zealand looseheads – including De Groot and the Chiefs’ Aidan Ross – while he was also lucky to escape a red card for a dubious tackle on Red prop Feao Fotuaika during the Hurricane’s Trans-Tasman campaign.
With Tuungafasi out of action, however, New Zealand’s depth in the No 3 jersey isn’t exactly bursting at the seams.
With both Laulala and Tuungafasi already part of the regular All Blacks propping set-up, third-choice Marcel Renata is the only other option in Auckland.
At the Chiefs, Ta’avao was backed up by Sione Mafileo and, eventually, Atunaisa Moli. Moli, with a bit of game time under his belt, could make a return to the All Blacks in the future but played just a single Super Rugby match upon his return from injury.
In New Zealand’s capital, Lomax started every match bar one while the Crusaders employed Samoa’s Michael Alaalatoa at tighthead. 29-year-old Siate Tokolahi was the Highlanders’ No 3 of choice this season, starting all but one match – but he’s now off to France.
By comparison, NZ’s loosehead stocks are exceptionally healthy.
Moody, Tu’inukuafe, Bower, De Groot and the Blues’ Alex Hodgman all have test experience while Ross spent some time with the national squad during July. Throw the likes of youngsters Tamaiti Williams and Ollie Norris into the mix and there’s little reason for concern.
That all makes the selection of just two specialists for the Rugby Championship all the more difficult to justify.
Perhaps Foster and his fellow selectors want to build depth in the tighthead position – but that doesn’t seem like a job for the national squad.
With so many proven looseheads around the country, however, Foster will be confident that should injury strike Moody, Tu’inukuafe or Tuungafasi, there’ll be plenty of men ready to step in and fill their boots.
The upcoming NPC – kicking off on August 7, the same weekend as the All Blacks’ next test – is the perfect time for a young No 3 to make a statement. It’s entirely possible that there’s a young tighthead prop set to make their provincial debut in the coming weeks who’s not on any national radars, but could be a surprise call-up for the All Blacks squad when they tour Europe at the end of year.
Watch this space.
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