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The dark horse that's risen through the ranks of the All Blacks squad

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Darren England/Photosport)

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Given that the All Blacks fell to defeat last time they played in Dublin, it seems sensible to assume that the side Ian Foster has selected to take on Ireland this weekend is the best available.

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There are some conversation-starting decisions across the park, with Ethan Blackadder selected ahead of Akira Ioane at blindside flanker, Beauden Barrett named at first five, and Rieko Ioane shifted into the midfield but perhaps the biggest surprise is that Tyrel Lomax has been named in the No 18 jersey.

Following the naming of the first All Blacks squad of the year back in June (which has remained relatively constant throughout the season), few would have baulked at the suggestion of Blackadder, Barrett or Ioane being named to start for a big match, given the lack of a clear incumbent in the former’s choice position, and the obvious talent and experience of the latter two players. Lomax’s rise into the first-choice side – even if it is on the bench, is a more significant change in fortunes.

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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.
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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.

The All Blacks have called upon eight props this year, with the entirety of the octet travelling with the squad to Australia and subsequently onto the United States and Europe.

Lomax may well have been lucky number eight, with a lack of options in the tighthead position throughout New Zealand paving the way for the Australian-born front-rower to continue his development on the international circuit, despite his somewhat disappointing Super Rugby form.

The Hurricanes scrum was the weakest of the five NZ sides and Lomax was one of the most penalised players throughout the Aotearoa season. Of course, not every issue at scrum time was the fault of the 25-year-old – but it’s not easy gaining national selection when you’re constantly getting towelled up in the set-pice, regardless of who’s at fault.

With Atunaisa Moli still on the mend from long-term injuries and no other clear up-and-comers in the No 3 jersey, especially when compared to the riches NZ currently appears to possess on the loosehead side of the scrum, Lomax was the only real candidate for a call-up.

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To his credit, he’s performed especially well in black this season – primarily in cameos off the bench. Just twice has Lomax been handed the starting responsibilities, against Argentina and Italy, but the All Blacks’ set-piece thrived in both fixtures, and was arguably the sole reason why New Zealand were able to finally bank some points against the Azzurri in the first half last weekend.

Head coach Ian Foster has already commended Lomax for some of his work earlier in the season, when he came off the bench in the first test against Argentina.

“He was pretty impressive off the bench, actually,” Foster said of Lomax’s performance. “Tyrel is a good scrummager and I thought in the second half he came in and was able to apply some of the learnings we had about the different tactics that were occurring at scrum time that caused us to get penalised a couple of times. I was quite pleased with the way he learnt, adapted and adjusted to that.

“And around the park, he’s on the balls of his feet bouncing around, really looking to get engaged in that ruck and tackle area. We were pleased with him and really looking forward to seeing him in a starting role.”

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Still, with Nepo Laulala the obvious first-choice tighthead and the likes of Angus Ta’avao and an injury-free Ofa Tuungafasi to select from, Lomax’s rise into the first-string matchday 23 is an excellent return for the 25-year-old, and one that should bode well for his future.

Next season, the All Blacks will inevitably have to trim down their squad and will limit themselves to three tightheads at the very most. Lomax will be going head-to-head with Ta’avao, Tuungafasi and quite possible Moli next season to determine who will fill those roles, and his performances in black this year should give him a headstart over his rivals.

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