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RUGBYPASS+ The new propping blood gunning for All Blacks selection

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The new propping blood gunning for All Blacks selection By Tom Vinicombe

It’s no secret that propping up scrums on the international stage is largely an older man’s game. While it’s not uncommon to see young outside backs, midfielders or even loose forwards make a splash at Rugby World Cups, the preference towards more grizzled characters, longer in the tooth, seems to increase as jersey numbers drop.

At 2019’s tournament in Japan, the Springboks’ youngest prop in the grand final was Steven Kitshoff, who was 27-years-old.

His fellow props, Frans Malherbe, Vincent Koch and Tendai Mtarawira ranged from 28 to 34.

It was a similar story in 2015 with 27-year-old Joe Moody the youngest of the All Blacks props to play in their final match with the Wallabies.

New Zealand did buck the trend four years earlier, however, handing 23-year-old Owen Franks the tighthead role – but the preference is still clear.

Experienced operators Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu combined with young gun Owen Franks for a formidable All Blacks front-row at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

Unlike some other roles in the game where players seem to peak in their mid-twenties, props just continue to get better with age.

That bodes well for Ian Foster’s current trove of front-rowers, with the likes of Ofa Tuungafasi, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Nepo Laulala all nearing their thirties.

Moody, meanwhile, will turn 33 later this year and might be on his last legs come the 2023 World Cup. The All Blacks half-centurion isn’t showing any signs of slowing down just yet, however, and is still odds on to make the trip to France.

Those four will likely form the nucleus of Ian Foster’s front row for the coming three years but there’s still room for a number of up-and-coming players to push their way into contention for regular minutes with the New Zealand national side.

Last year, Alex Hodgman, George Bower and Tyrel Lomax all spent time in the All Blacks camp. Hodgman and Lomax both accrued a handful of minutes throughout New Zealand’s six matches while Bower was a late call-up for the squad as an injury replacement for Moody but didn’t get the chance to take the field.

Tuungafasi, Tu’inukuafe and Laulala have been consistent performers for the Blues – if not spectacular, while Alex Hodgman has continued to develop his game but lost some traction due to a three-week suspension and has earned just one start since the end of March.

In 2021, however, the contest for spots in the All Blacks’ propping ranks has tightened up.

Tuungafasi, Tu’inukuafe and Laulala have been consistent performers for the Blues – if not spectacular, while Alex Hodgman has continued to develop his game but lost some traction due to a three-week suspension and has earned just one start since the end of March.

In fact, despite having four All Blacks props in their midst, the scrum hasn’t been quite the weapon for the Blues as many had expected.

Lomax at the Hurricanes has had a tough time on the field and while he certainly possesses the ball-running game that appeals to the All Blacks selectors, he’s been towelled up a few times at the set-piece by some less experienced opposition.

Further south, Moody started the season strongly with the Crusaders but hasn’t played since his 100th Super Rugby match against the Hurricanes at the beginning of April.

Props Joe Moody, Ofa Tungafasi and Nepo Laulala have been permanent fixtures in the All Blacks set-up for a number of years. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The plantar fascia injury he suffered in that match means he’s unlikely to feature for the New Zealand national side until the Rugby Championship.

In his absence, Bower has gone from strength to strength with the Crusaders thanks to regular game time in the No 1 jersey and looks like a near certainty for the upcoming tests while 20-year-old Tamaiti Williams has also had his first introduction to Super Rugby.

The big mover in the South Island this year, however, is undoubtedly 22-year-old Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot, who made his debut in 2020 but has emerged as the clear first-choice loosehead for the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman finalists.

Having come into the season with just two appearances off the reserves bench to speak of, the Southland Boys’ High alumnus has flourished with regular minutes. As of last weekend, de Groot has started eight matches for the Highlanders in the No 1 jersey this year – pushing ahead of experienced operators Daniel Lienert-Brown and Ayden Johnstone.

Some of that increased game time is a product of greater experience at provincial level, some of it is down to injuries at New Zealand’s southernmost franchise, and some of it is due to de Groot’s increased mobility, which was a key goal during the summer break.

It’s pretty unreal going from Southland, watching All Blacks play, and then facing them each week – especially in that Aotearoa competition. I was up for the challenge and tried not to take a step back.

Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot

“At the start of the season, my biggest work-on was definitely my scrumming but even before that, it was losing a bit of weight,” de Groot told The XV.

“I lost 10 kilos over the pre-season which is probably why I can go a bit longer player Super. I was 135 during Mitre 10 and I got down to 125 over the pre-season. I’m sitting at 126, 127 at the moment.”

That mobility will do wonders for de Groot’s long-term aspirations but in the short-term, it’s his scrummaging which will have put the national selectors on notice. It also probably helps that the Highlanders have former All Blacks prop Clarke Dermody in their coaching contingent.

“The coaches are just telling me to go out there and do my thing, they give me a few work-ons each week and keep building from that,” de Groot said.

“It’s pretty unreal going from Southland, watching All Blacks play, and then facing them each week – especially in that Aotearoa competition. I was up for the challenge and tried not to take a step back.”

At just 22, there’s still plenty of time for de Groot to take the step up to the next level and while he may not get the call-up to the All Black for the July test series, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the young prop feature for New Zealand’s second team later this year.

22-year-old Ethan de Groot has looked as comfortable with the ball in hand as he has packing down scrums for the Highlanders. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Further north, however, is perhaps where the greatest propping renaissance has taken place in 2021, with the Chiefs continuing to rebuild having lost the talents of Karl Tu’inukuafe and Nepo Laulala to the Blues in the past two seasons.

All Blacks Atunaisa Moli and Angus Ta’avao have re-emerged this year after spending the better part of last season’s Super Rugby campaign on the sidelines.

Moli, in particular, is an exceptional long-term prospect for the national side who can play on both sides of the scrum and was a surprise inclusion in the squad for the World Cup, despite having played just three games for the All Blacks before the tournament kicked off.

His career to date has been marred by major injuries, with an infected haemotoma almost costing him his leg in 2018, and major hip issues requiring surgery part-way through 2020.

A long recovery from that surgery meant Moli only made his return appearance for the Chiefs in the latter stages of their Trans-Tasman campaign against the Brumbies but he wasn’t able to clock up any further minutes following that game thanks to the Chiefs’ disrupted travel schedule.

I think that’s what keeps you in New Zealand, striving to get to wear that [All Blacks] jersey one day.

Chiefs prop Aidan Ross

A return to the black jersey could be on the cards in the future for the 26-year-old but don’t expect that to come before he’s turned out for Tasman in this year’s NPC.

Young loosehead Ollie Norris is another in Chiefs country who could have a bright future. The former loose forward has made a big impact off the bench for the Super Rugby Aotearoa finalists throughout 2021 in his first full-time campaign with the side.

Earlier this week, Norris was named alongside Tamaiti Williams in the Maori All Blacks – and that pair could fight it out over the coming years for an All Blacks starting berth.

It’s perhaps the Chiefs’ first-choice loosehead, however, 25-year-old Aidan Ross, who could have the most to gain from Joe Moody’s ongoing injury.

Ross was being touted for a potential call-up to the All Blacks back in 2018 when injuries struck the national propping stocks but a broken ankle quickly shut those whispers down – paving the way for Karl Tu’inukuafe’s eventual elevation.

While injury again robbed him of making a claim for a black jersey last year, he’s returned with a vengeance in 2021 and will be going head-to-head with the likes of Alex Hodgman and Ethan de Groot for the third loosehead spot in the national squad that’s due to be named on Monday.

While the Crusaders had the wood over the Chiefs in their first encounter of 2021, the two sides were on level pegging come the Super Rugby Aotearoa final. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Like any young player in New Zealand, Ross has acknowledged that the All Blacks is the carrot that keeps the cart horse heading forwards.

“I think that’s what keeps you in New Zealand, striving to get to wear that jersey one day,” Ross told The XV earlier this season. “It’s definitely a goal.

“I can’t say I’ve ever really had chat from the coaches around whether I’m in line or not. By the time it gets to that stage of the season where they’re looking at selections, I’m usually injured by then anyway.”

While Ross, Ta’avao and the Chiefs forward pack were dealt to by the Crusaders in their first encounter earlier in the season, that game marked the return from injury for both the Chiefs’ props and after some tough looks in the mirror following the match, things improved significantly.

It’s their performances against the likes of the Blues, Crusaders and Brumbies that could have the duo of Ross and Ta’avao pencilled in for national selection ahead of Monday – call-ups that would be well deserved after facing plenty of adversary.

“I look back at that game and that was my first game back since the knee op,” said Ross. “It was Angus’ first start since his knee op and I think it’s really important with scrummaging just to get plenty of time in the saddle, getting heaps of reps under your belt and getting used to that feeling again – it doesn’t just happen straight away. Sometimes it takes a few harsh lessons to know where you once were and what you’ve got to do to get back there.

“There’s no hiding that we got pumped and pretty embarrassed that night and it’s a feeling you don’t like to have and one you don’t want to have the following weekend so as much as anything, it’s a mental shift as well, knowing you don’t want to leave that park the following week with that same feeling. So you’ve just got to do whatever you can to make sure you get it right.”

That was the only time the pack was embarrassed this season, however, with the Chiefs regularly getting the best of their opposition throughout the season.

It’s their subsequent performances against the likes of the Blues, Crusaders and Brumbies that could have the duo of Ross and Ta’avao pencilled in for national selection ahead of Monday – call-ups that would be well deserved after facing plenty of adversary.

While the All Blacks have a stable of experienced propping options they can call upon for the 2021 year, there will certainly be some new additions to the fold for the mammoth 15-game campaign – and injuries to Joe Moody and Ofa Tuungafasi means some of those additions will be revealed early next week.

There are plenty of options available across the country – it simply comes down to whether the selectors opt for young blood or the more wizened characters who have proved their worth over a number of campaigns.

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