As the young bucks rise up to challenge the established bulls in the All Blacks front-row, a looming selection squeeze could officially reshape the pecking order.
News of Jack Goodhue’s latest injury setback – the
midfielder requires further knee surgery – hogged headlines as the All Blacks provided a squad update on Monday while they prepare for their next Rugby Championship test in Christchurch.
Midway through the same release was the seemingly tamer news that Blues props Nepo Laulala (knee) and Ofa Tu’ungafasi (neck) have recovered from injuries and will continue their return to fitness with Counties Manukau and Northland, respectively.
On the face of it, giving Laulala and Tu’ungafasi, both 30-year-old veterans, another week to progress their fitness is no major slight. Brodie Retallick will make his comeback from a broken cheekbone, suffered in the third test defeat to Ireland, with Hawke’s Bay this weekend, too.
The difference, though, is that while Retallick will slide back into the All Blacks, Laulala and Tu’ungafasi are no longer guaranteed selections.
“They’re in a return to play mode,” All Blacks coach Ian Foster said. “With knees and necks it’s important we get those 100 per cent.
“At the same time a couple of guys have come in and played really well. When you get an opportunity, we ask players to take it. I thought both Tyrel Lomax and Fletcher Newell took it. For Ofa and Nepo, the key thing is they get their body right.
“Last year we had to return players to the international level with no rugby background because we were away. This year we’ve got the luxury of playing them through the NPC and we’ll carry on doing that.”
Tu’ungafasi is probably in the stronger position to push his case, as he covers both sides of the scrum, but the evolution demanded from the All Blacks props over the past two years puts Laulala at risk of being surpassed after his defensive mobility again proved problematic for Counties last Friday night.
While Foster left the door ajar for Laulala and Tu’ungafasi to return to the All Blacks, possibly as early as next week in Hamilton, Ethan de Groot, Lomax and Newell laid down markers in the upset triumph against the Springboks at Ellis Park.
De Groot and Newell, in particular, appear the future of the All Blacks front row.
With Laulala and Tu’ungafasi edging their way back, and the young brigade clearly signalling their intentions, Chiefs prop Angus Ta’avao will also be looking over his shoulder.
Foster was quick to note the impressive performance from the All Blacks props in Johannesburg must be repeated this weekend but with a combination of set piece proficiency, ball skills, defensive work-rate and mobility, the new breed significantly raised the bar after those areas were ruthlessly exposed by Ireland in July when de Groot, Lomax and Newell were not involved.
“It’s one test, but they’re certainly showing that attitude,” Foster said. “Primarily the job is to get the core part right first. That’s what we were particularly pleased with in the weekend. We gave up a couple of scrum penalties in the second half which was disappointing, we’ve got to be better than that. We’ve still got a bit of growth to do in that space but promising signs. “
Newell, injected off the bench for his test debut in the intimidating Ellis Park cauldron, had several telling touches in David Havili’s try that sparked the All Blacks comeback. Those skills and mobility, alongside set piece strength, form the prototype the All Blacks need from their modern-day props.
After savoring his first taste of test rugby, the 22-year-old, 121kg Newell is hungry to retain his spot for a maiden appearance on his home patch.
“It was a dream to put on that black jersey from a young age,” Newell said. “When you do that, you want to do it more and more.
“Being in the Crusaders, we pride ourselves in our forwards of being able to get around the field. Jason Ryan coming into this environment has boosted that as well. You need to have a good balance. That’s always going to be a challenge for us front-rowers. It’s quite hard to get around the field when you weigh as much as some of us. Everyone is working hard on being mobile and getting off the ground quickly. “
Newell’s father, who proudly displayed a sign proclaiming his son’s rise from Leithfield to the national team before traveling to South Africa, took him to the last All Blacks test in Christchurch.
Six years on Newell seems set to continue his rise among the next generation of All Blacks props.