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Unfortunate casualties inevitable when All Blacks cull squad

By Tom Vinicombe
Samisoni Taukei'aho, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Angus Ta'avao, George Bower. (Photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP via Getty Images)

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When the All Blacks announced their Rugby Championship squad, the composition of the group left little to discuss. Almost every player who has been in or around the All Blacks set-up over the past few years made the cut.

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Last year, injuries and sabbaticals meant that a handful of key names were absent throughout the season, and Ian Foster had to fill the roster with the second, third and fourth-best cabs off the rank. This year, the longer-term absences haven’t been quite so plentiful – but the men who stepped up last year weren’t to be discarded.

In fact, just six players who graced the black jersey last year likely won’t feature at some stage throughout 2021.

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Ian Foster talks Damian McKenzie at No 10 as All Blacks make wholesale changes | RugbyPass
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Ian Foster talks Damian McKenzie at No 10 as All Blacks make wholesale changes | RugbyPass

Forwards Alex Hodgman and Cullen Grace earned test debuts last year but have missed out this season to other in-form players, while Peter Umaga-Jensen was a late call-up to the squad in 2020 but has fallen behind David Havili and Quinn Tupaea in the pecking order.

Caleb Clarke, meanwhile, was never in contention for a call-up this year after committing to rugby sevens while Jack Goodhue has been injured and Ngani Laumape is now plying his trade in France.

While there will inevitably be a small number of players who lose form or hit their last legs in the coming seasons, the safe bet is that the vast majority of the 41 players that have been called into the All Blacks this year will be pushing for selection in two years’ time, when the Rugby World Cup kicks off in France. Between now and then, Ian Foster will have to cull down his squad whilst also making room for the likes of Clarke, Goodhue, and any other players that prove themselves impossible not to pick come 2023.

There will be casualties across the board but perhaps none more so than in the front row.

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The official 36-man squad named for the Rugby Championship ostensibly included three hookers and six props but a host of injury-cover players has ballooned those numbers out to eight props and four hookers.

Looseheads Joe Moody, Karl Tu’inukuafe, George Bower and Ethan de Groot, tightheads Ofa Tuungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Angus Ta’avao and Tyrel Lomax, and hookers Codie Taylor, Dane Coles, Asafo Aumua and Samisoni Taukei’aho make up the 12 players that have featured in the front row for NZ throughout 2021.

While Joe Moody, Ofa Tuungafasi, Nepo Laulala and Codie Taylor are players who have proven themselves time and time again in the black jersey, there’s little between the remaining nine players and it would take a brave soul to put any significant money on who of that contingent will join the top four at France in 2023.

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As early as next year, a good portion of that group are likely to get the early cut, given Foster’s men are unlikely to regularly name squads boasting more than three hookers or six props. Although there are a few men who are sitting lower down the rankings courtesy of their limited game time, that doesn’t mean they’re obvious exclusions either.

Two players, Bower and Tu’inukuafe have shared the starting loosehead duties to date, with Bower wearing No 1 on five occasions and Tu’inukuafe taking on the responsibility twice. Moody, the first choice, will don the jersey on Saturday, however.

Tuungafasi, who has also been injured, is also set to make his maiden appearance of the season from the bench on Saturday.

Their returns have been widely anticipated by both the wider public, and the coaching group.

“It’s great [to have them both back],” Foster said after naming his side for the weekend. “We were very hesitant to put both of them in the 23 at the same time after significant injuries so it was good to bring Joe back last week and he enjoyed the run around.

“He’s really keen to get into that No 1 jersey and have a good crack and now it’s a great chance to reintroduce Ofa and he’s trained well. It’s a chance to use him off the bench and we’ll evaluate his form after that.”

Ethan de Groot, one of the injury replacements, was also likely to earn some minutes after recovering from his own problems, but the selectors deemed he wasn’t “quite ready” this weekend.

Foster suggested there was a chance that some players could return to New Zealand following the Australian leg of their end of season schedule and De Groot could be a perfect candidate, now that Moody is back from injury and the coaches can call also call upon Bower, Tu’inukuafe and even Ofa Tuungafasi if needs must.

On the tighthead side of the scrum, things are equally as congested.

Nepo Laulala has started six matches this season, with Angus Ta’avao earning one start in the opening game of the year and Tyrel Lomax finally given a chance this weekend. Tuungafasi, more often than not, is also likely to feature primarily on that side of the scrum.

Lomax impressed the selectors last weekend after joining the fracas in the second half against Argentina.

“He was pretty impressive off the bench, actually,” Foster said. “It’s been tough. Our tightheads have gone really well. We’ve been really impressed with Nepo and Angus did a great job for us against Australia off the bench and brings a lot of mobility and now it’s a matter of giving opportunity to Tyrel and Ofa.

“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.”

Spearheading the pack, Codie Taylor is far and away the best hooker in the country while Dane Coles, should he overcome his injury troubles, is still a worthwhile investment. That leaves Asafo Aumua and Samisoni Taukei’aho to battle away for the third spot, assuming everyone remains free from injury.

Aumua started the year ahead in the pecking order but Taukei’aho has hugely impressed since joining the team during the July series, after Aumua took a knock to the head. Both players are young and hungry and while they’re equally as destructive with ball in hand, it’s likely that their core work in the lineouts and scrums could decide their fates.

Foster and his fellow selectors have some tough decisions ahead of them and Saturday’s rematch with the Pumas will provide the coaching set-up with a bit more data on which to eventually base their decisions.

Every game, at this stage, could be do or die for the members of the All Blacks’ front three club.

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Unfortunate casualties inevitable when All Blacks cull squad

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