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FEATURE The All Blacks have discovered an attacking spine and a new backbone

The All Blacks have discovered an attacking spine and a new backbone
11 months ago

Angus Ta’avao knows what it feels to return home to New Zealand as rugby wreckage, a reclamation project. He was unceremoniously dumped by the Waratahs back in 2017, after two seasons spent in New South Wales. He had taken the risk to try and qualify for the Wallabies via his Australian mother, and it failed:

“[NSW head coach] Daryl Gibson came to me and he said, ‘We don’t have a contract for you next year. It was sort of like a punch to the gut, because I still felt like I had so much good rugby to play. I still felt like I could offer more’.”

Angus Ta’avao was proven right. His Super Rugby contract was picked up by the Chiefs back in New Zealand and within one season he was a fully-fledged tighthead prop for the All Blacks.

At six-feet-four-inches tall and 124 kilos, Ta’avao is built along similar lines to the man who has replaced him, probably permanently, as starter on the right side of the New Zealand scrum. That man is 27-year-old Tyrel Lomax, who is the same height, and even heavier than Ta’avao at 127 kilos.

Their careers have clear parallels. Like the Chiefs man, Lomax tried his luck in the Australian version of Super Rugby with the Melbourne Rebels. He was already a part of Michael Cheika’s wider 48-man Wallaby squad in 2017 when he departed for the Highlanders, by way of the Tasman Mako in the Mitre 10 Cup one year later.

Angus Ta’avao spent two seasons with the Waratahs before returning to New Zealand and quickly making the All Blacks. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The son of ex-Kiwi rugby league prop John Lomax has not looked back since, not even a glance has been wasted at ‘what might have been’ in Australia. Then-coach of the Mako (and soon-to-be All Blacks assistant) Leon MacDonald saw his potential immediately:

“Even though he’s young, his frame and attitude set him apart. He is aspiring to make the All Blacks and we are very proud that he sees Tasman as the pathway for him. For him to pack down alongside stalwarts like Tim Perry and Kane Hames is exciting for the future of Tasman rugby.”

Australia’s loss has most definitely been New Zealand’s gain, both on and off the field. Ta’avao and Lomax have now won 47 national caps between them, and the former has ensconced himself very comfortably indeed on the couch at Sky Sport’s The Breakdown rugby debate program while he watches his young protegé rise to ever more rarefied heights in the game.

On Saturday, Ta’avao would have been relishing the performance of a starting All Blacks front row which dismantled the Pumas scrum systematically, right from the beginning of the game. The run-on trio of Ethan de Groot, Dane Coles and Lomax won four of the five penalties New Zealand juiced from the set-piece:

As soon as Lomax takes that shuffle-step forward with his right foot in the first clip, his opponent Thomas Gallo cannot recover. He finishes in the same uncomfortably familiar tangle as Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro in my previous article, lamenting the decline of Argentine scrummaging. Gallo’s torso is forced up and his head is driven outside the tunnel, and that means a conclusive triumph for the tighthead.

Both Ta’avao and Lomax returned to New Zealand primarily in order to rediscover the dark arts of scrummaging on the tighthead which they had temporarily mislaid in Australia. With Jason Ryan’s arrival as forwards coach, Tyrel Lomax has succeeded in laying the foundations of the new model All Black scrum. As Ta’avao pointed out in the Sky Sports studio, all that remains is picking the right bench back-up against the Springbok ‘bomb squad’:

“I do back young [Crusader swing-man] Tamaiti Williams, but I don’t know whether this is the right time to chuck him in. 22 years old, young buck, he has come a long way in the last couple of years.

“But Ofa [Tu’ungafasi] and Nepo [Laulala]: they’ve been there, they’ve played these teams, they’re physical, they know what it takes.

“I have to back my mate Samisoni, so Codie Taylor starts, with Samisoni on the bench.”

Laying the foundations means more than just dominating the scrum. The All Blacks also held the upper hand at lineout time, winning 90 per cent of their own throw while either stealing or spoiling five of Argentina’s 12 feeds from touch. That meant the Pumas had no obvious entry points into the game via either set-piece, because they were always under pressure at both.

Angus Ta’avao went on to make an important observation how about how set-piece dominance needs to be supported by accurate lines of running in the midfield triangle:

“I think [No 10 Damian McKenzie] building into that game was a product of the people around him. He had a bit of a jittery start, but ‘Nuggy’ [Aaron Smith] inside him and Jordie [Barrett] outside with a man-of-the-match performance, really helped him settle and build into the game.”

With McKenzie’s natural tendency to run cross-field and follow the direction of his own passes in view, the two New Zealand centres both played very tight, hard and square to the advantage line to mitigate any lateral movement on attack:

Scott Barrett steals the Argentine lineout throw, and Rieko Ioane’s first step after receiving the pass from McKenzie is inside, straightening the line, north-south, directly upfield. The All Blacks scored a couple of phases later:

Throughout the match, Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane at centre played within a metre or two of one another, both running hard and straight and leaving the wider arcs to McKenzie and the back three:

Jordie either took the first pass with Damian McKenzie sliding around the back, or with McKenzie passing and quickly wrapping around him to become available on the next play. As Sam Cane highlighted in the post-match presser, the combination of ground-gaining carries and close support made for a lot of easy cleanouts for the likes of the All Blacks No 7 and No 13, and produced lightning-quick ball for McKenzie and the back three: “Our ball-carrying was really good first half, and that made it easier for the guys cleaning out.”

As soon as either Barrett or Ioane felt McKenzie beginning to shift sideways, they immediately ironed out the lateral drift and straightened the attack:

That scoring phase came after an initial carry by Barrett on a switch with McKenzie, with the flyhalf naturally running away flat and his midfielder square to the line after the pass had been made:

The pièce de resistance for All Black planning around the set-piece arrived in the 56th minute of the game:


The scrum is rock-solid and produces prime attacking ball, McKenzie runs away flat for the wrap around a pair of hard-running centres, and New Zealand has the match-up it really wants on McKenzie’s second touch. The diminutive blonde No 10 is on his favourite running line, and in a foot race to the corner with the Argentine No 13, who has already been drawn in towards midfield by the lines taken inside by Barrett and Ioane. It is a no-contest:

When Angus Ta’avao and Tyrel Lomax first returned to New Zealand shores, it was with the intention of repairing their reputations at the set-piece, which had suffered plenty of situational damage during their time with the New South Wales Waratahs and the Melbourne Rebels respectively.

To their credit, both made the necessary scrum fixes and have become bona fide, Test-worthy All Black tighthead props. With Joe Schmidt and Jase Ryan now working directly underneath head coach Ian Foster, the foundations of the game at set-piece, and in the first three phases of attack are now looking very solid indeed.

The scrum is aggressive and won a bunch of penalties against the Pumas, while the tandem of Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane in the centres auto-corrected any lateral movement from No 10 Damian McKenzie by straightening the line immediately. That in turn gave success in the hard yards through contact, easy cleanouts for the support, and lightning-quick ball on the next phase.

The real test will come next weekend against the Springboks. South Africa will bring greater megatonnage at the scrum and they will bring it for 80 minutes with the ‘bomb squad’ from the bench, and they will attack the Kiwi ball carriers from the outside in far more combatively than Argentina. There will be pressure coming from all sides, and it will be a case of ‘devil will take the hindmost’ at the finish.


Jon 343 days ago

It warmed the heart to see a lad like Lomax choose the same country as his dad. Though you’d have to imagine the jersey was also just as empowering. I imagine he could have been quite happy to represent Australia as well. Ta’avao was also a great story when it was quite some year for the Chiefs, and of more than a couple for their front rowers in general. Fairly fortunate, when you’ve also got the massive De Groot, from where I don’t know, and both Holland and Segner who look destined for higher honors. Then theres also Ainsley. I’m not sure I’d place a lot of credit on New Zealand’s scrummaging prowess for their meteoric rise though.

While you’re right, the center tactic complements Dmac, he himself also has been running much straighter onto the ball (fairly heavily to his detriment in the SR final) this year. This could be the key difference this year, from a few seasons ago when they tried this aggressive passing off Havili and failed with very passive and static 10’s in Barrett/Mounga. I’m not sure Barrett has much better ball playing skills but when Havili made things click that backline certainly looked dangerous and exciting. Problem was a few teams who could shut him down, maybe Foster is working on being able to play just a little bit slicker now. Front foot ball will certainly make life easier. Still, they made a heck of a lot of errors in this game, especially considering the opposition.

So how many tries in the first 3 phases in this game? Would love to know the difference in this stat between games above and below 7 point margins

Sam T 345 days ago

"all that remains is picking the right bench back-up against the Springbok ‘bomb squad"

this aspect of selection has been Foster's biggest achilles heel.

Foster appears to be to be quite conservative with selections, he trusts incumbents to a fault even if their performances aren't as compelling to justify their pick.

There's an illustrative moment in the Amazon documentary about the All Blacks during the 2017 Lions series when Hansen asks Foster to consider switching Savea to the right and playing Rieko on the left. Foster was adamant it was a foolish idea to try so close to naming the team and Hansen said "just be open to it"

There were some confounding bench selections last year just when we felt he had finally stumbled on to the right players in key positions, particularly in the front row.

He persists with Laulala as an impact player when he is the opposite of the definition, not Nepo's fault, he'll give 100% to the coach and the jersey, but there are alternatives - just be open to it Fozzie.

Greg 345 days ago

I was fearing the worst when Lomax made his debut against the Boks, given that earlier in the season Angus Bell gave him such a working over for the Tahs that Lomax was subbed by Franks before half-time. Big credit must go to Jason Ryan for that turn-around, surely. But Lomax wouldn't have been there had Ta'avao not been injured. Good judges are now talking up Tamaiti Williams' scrummaging, so maybe it's time to throw him in, given Nepo Laulala is bound for France and seemed to add very little when he came on against Argentina. Best to find out now whether Tamaiti is up to it for RWC?

Sam T 345 days ago

Like yourself Nick, and others on here from the other site, it was a much improved performance, particularly as we've grown accustomed to rusty first tests for the All Blacks.

The try to Beauden Barrett was so clever not just in execution but also in the setup. Until that point both midfielders had run tight lines, very straight and direct, so the Pumas were expecting more of the same and not the subtle wrap pass from Jordie or the flat angled run from DMac running in behind.

There were a couple of passages in the first half when DMac drifted crossfield but then propped to draw the defender and with little back motion, ripped a bullet pass across his body to teammate in space. It's those micro skills that set DMac and Mo'unga apart from Beauden, who's passing by comparison is inferior.

It was noticeable to me, how little change was given in the seam between the All Blacks setpieces and backline defence due to DMac's strength in front-on tackling. It's the weakest part of Mo'unga's otherwise excellent all round game and may influence the selectors on who to start this week.

The Boks will be a huge test for this team and the coaches.

The second half was a teaser for the main feature, as the All Blacks had less possession, forced into making more tackles and conceded more penalties compared to the first half. Jason Ryan will be reminding the pack and bench they need to be more effective, efficient and accurate on both sides of the ball as they'll be operating under greater pressure.

We didn't see a lot of kicking in general play last week expect to see this change on Saturday.

john 345 days ago

I am greatly amused that there is no mention that Taavo's coach at the Tahs was a kiwi and Lomax's coach at the Rebels was South African. It's gold isn't it ?

Aren't kiwi coaches meant to be amaaaazing ?

I can't wait for some kiwi to take the bait and pipe up that it's the cattle in Australia ....

Otagoman II 345 days ago

Thanks again NB. Lomax looked a coming man when at the Highlanders but switched to the hurricanes and seemed to lose momentum but mid way through last super season under the teachings of Franks and feedback from the AB coaches he became that prop he had threatened to be. I like the ditching of the pod system as tasks are simplified on attack to allow the team to react better to the scenario developing.

Another 345 days ago

Bad call regarding Tamatai Williams who most definitely should be on the bench and ranked well ahead of both Tu’ungafasi and Laulala both in terms of current performance and potential. If you are good enough you are old enough, and the evidence of the old guard players are that they don’t have any impact whatsoever when they go on to the field. Williams does, and plays on both sides of the scrum with real power.

The Springboks have seemingly mastered the art of impact subs with their so-called ‘bomb squad’. The ABs potentially have their own bomb squad of Williams, Tauke'aho and Fletcher Newall (when fit). They cannot afford to keep these players in the closet.

Neihana 345 days ago

For the first international of the year things looked good. Just have to maintain momentum.

Highlander 345 days ago

Some really nice variation in there on Saturday. Early on BB was in at 10 doing the clearances easing Dmac into it ( other than that poor shuffle on for the charge down) Smith was hitting Jordie directly, and for the opening 3 tries Clarke was at first receiver for two of them.
At 17-0 Dmac had touched the ball at first receiver only 4 times.
Mixed it up really well. As with the binning of their traditional pods it really kept Arg guessing on where the attack would come from.
Excellent observation on how close the centres played Nick, I thought they did the same in defence with Reiko working really hard to stay in pattern and not bite out at the ball , big improvement.

Harry 345 days ago

In for a classic.

It is up to the Boks to lose this one.

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