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'Very athletic': Ian Foster's reason for picking unheralded youngster

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

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You could be excused if you had to do a second take when the All Blacks announced the inclusion of unheralded youngster Josh Lord in their squad for the upcoming end-of-year tour of the northern hemisphere.

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Lord was named as one of five players set to join the All Blacks squad ahead of their five-match tour of the United States and Europe, which kicks-off against the USA Eagles in Washington DC on October 23.

The others set to link back up with Foster’s current group of players includes captain Sam Cane, veteran lock Sam Whitelock, experienced hooker Dane Coles and loose forward Shannon Frizell, but the inclusion of Lord will have certainly raised a few eyebrows.

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Ian Foster and Ardie Savea speak to media following Rugby Championship defeat to Springboks
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Ian Foster and Ardie Savea speak to media following Rugby Championship defeat to Springboks

At just 20 years of age, Lord has just five Super Rugby appearances to his name after having made his debut for the Chiefs this year.

Most of those outings came against embattled Australian sides in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman or in dead-rubber encounters in Super Rugby Aotearoa as the former New Zealand U20 hardly established himself as a household name for the Chiefs.

However, Foster revealed he and his fellow All Blacks selectors have long had an eye Lord after he caught their eyes during visits to the Hamilton-based franchise.

Speaking to media on Monday, Foster said Lord’s athleticism made him stand out as a long-term All Blacks prospect for the future.

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“He’s a young player, a lot of promise,” he said.

“We were impressed with him whenever we’ve gone and seen him at training at Super level. Very athletic and we saw this as an opportunity to grow a young player for the future.

“He’s got the physical attributes that we think are right going forward, and it’s just a chance to get him on this tour and start working with him.”

By selecting Lord, Foster has shied away from selecting other second rowers who have been involved recent All Blacks squads of the past and locks thought to be on the periphery of selection in the national squad.

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That includes Crusaders duo Quinten Strange, who was named in last year’s All Blacks squad for the Bledisloe Cup and Tri Nations series before he was ruled out due to injury, and Mitchell Dunshea, who was picked as Strange’s replacement but never took to the field against the Wallabies or Los Pumas.

Highlanders behemoth Pari Pari Parkinson is another whose name has often been linked to the All Blacks due to his immense physical features, but Foster said Lord’s form for Taranaki in this year’s NPC validated his inclusion in the national squad.

“As the selectors, we just looked at our situation and we’ve got Sammy Whitelock coming over, we’ve got Brodie, we’ve got Tupou, and we just saw a big middle-of-the-lineout option,” he said.

“He’s big, he’s athletic, and, again, we like what we saw in Super Rugby last year. He’s carried some of that form on through the NPC with Taranaki and he’s just got a lot of good qualities about him, so I guess it’s an eye to the future, this selection, but it’s one that does excite us.”

Lord’s promotion to the All Blacks is largely due to the absences of Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu, both of whom will leave Foster’s squad to return to New Zealand for personal reasons after obtaining MIQ places.

That leaves the All Blacks bereft of a reasonable amount of quality and experience, but the return of Whitelock to the national squad will help alleviate that issue.

As a result, the All Blacks will have four locks – Lord, Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Tupou Vaa’i – on deck for their upcoming tour, which means Vaa’i is set to take on a more senior role despite his youth and inexperience.

After taking on a heavy workload for the Chiefs this season following his shock call-up to the All Blacks last year, the 21-year-old has been used sparingly by Foster in 2021.

He was the only player not to feature for the All Blacks in their July test series against Tonga and Fiji, and made three only appearances throughout the Rugby Championship, two of which came off the bench against Australia and Argentina.

In his one test start against Los Pumas in Brisbane, though, Vaa’i showed glimpses of his vast potential as he ran in two tries and acquitted himself well across the park.

That appears to have been enough evidence for Foster to entrust the seven-test international with a more prominent role within the squad without the services of Barrett and Tuipulotu.

“He’ll have an increased role, and, are we confident? Yeah, we’re very confident,” Foster said when asked if he has faith in Vaa’i’s ability to step into a more senior role within the All Blacks squad.

“We love what he did with us last year and, again, he’s probably a year further down than Josh Lord, but we saw Tupou really, really quickly last year and he dealt with a starting role in a Bledisloe Cup game under a lot of pressure.

“Whenever we put him on the park, we felt he performed really well and he’s continued to do that and impressed us, so [we have] utter confidence in that and we really see this tour as a chance for him to get some significant game time and have a big role.”

Exactly how much game time Vaa’i or Lord will get against the United States, Wales, Italy, Ireland and France remains to be seen, especially given Frizell’s ability to cover in the second row despite predominantly being a blindside flanker.

The prospect of bringing another lock into the squad from the NPC has also been floated, but Foster said Lord will have every opportunity of making his test debut should he impose himself well on the rest of the squad.

“You’ll have to wait and see, but that’s kind of the idea,” Foster said when asked if game time was a certainty for Lord.

“We’re also tempted to bring over another lock, too, but we’ve got Shannon Frizell coming over who can cover, so we’ve got a couple of options there.

“We’ve done this before with some younger players and we think there’s a lot to gain out of introducing someone at a younger age who we think has got the mental and physical attributes that we need and expose them to it and give them a good chance.

“If he settles in well, he’s got a great chance of getting some time.”

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