BORDEAUX, France — In a Rugby World Cup where set-piece strength could be the squeeze point axis on which success tilts, the All Blacks propping stocks are again thrust in the spotlight.
Just as losing to France in the tournament-opening match in Paris did not cast their definitive fate, losing starting loosehead prop Ethan de Groot to a two-week suspension isn’t terminal for the All Blacks either.
It is, however, another frustrating setback in a litany of recent challenges as Ian Foster attempts to revive his All Blacks from two losses in their last three Tests. With two red cards across those matches and lingering discipline issues the All Blacks haven’t helped themselves in recent weeks.
As a means to rebuild confidence and repair struggling areas of their game the All Blacks’ 11-try rout of Namibia largely went to plan.
Much tougher tests await, of course, but each World Cup match carries a purpose. Teams can only confront their next opposition.
De Groot’s red card for his high shot on Namibian loose forward Adriaan Booysen late in the blowout cast a dark cloud over the All Blacks’ first win of the tournament.
While the All Blacks argued de Groot made shoulder-to-shoulder contact with Booysen, who suffered a dislocated shoulder from the incident, the judiciary determined he had ample time to lower his body height – and that head contact was made.
“Always disappointed. It is what it is,” an irked Foster said of the suspension this week. “We went to Paris, a big old day, argued our case and [were] a little bit surprised but we’ll have to suck that up and take it.
“I’m not sure ours was a significant shoulder to head contact. I’m not going to go into detail that’s the process we’ve got to respect that. There’s lots of layers in the judiciary now between the TMOs and the bunker and even those three weren’t totally aligned on it.”
Completing World Rugby’s tackle school reduces de Groot’s suspension from three to two weeks, saving him from missing a potential quarterfinal, but his absence for the All Blacks’ final pool fixtures against Italy and Uruguay exposes the delicate landscape of two fit loosehead props, Ofa Tuʻungafasi and Test rookie Tamaiti Williams, carrying the load.
Tuʻungafasi is now in line to start against Italy which will promote three-Test rookie Williams to the bench for his World Cup debut.
In two of their last three Tests – against South Africa and France’s powerhouse packs – the All Blacks scrum struggled which cost penalties and hamstrung their game.
De Groot remains highly regarded but as a leading culprit in those issues, the All Blacks now face the risky prospect of bringing him back cold for a potential quarterfinal.
While the All Blacks’ scrum improved significantly to crush Namibia, the reality is no one will read too much into those efforts.
In more positive news for the All Blacks’ first-choice tighthead prop Tyrel Lomax, who suffered a horrific gash to his thigh from a stray plastic blade in the defeat to the Springboks at Twickenham that required 30 stitches, is on the verge of returning from that nasty injury.
Lomax revealed this week he thought his World Cup was over when he first laid eyes on his thigh muscle. One month on from that incident he is on the cusp of making his comeback in the do-or-die pool contest with Italy in Lyon.
A two-week gap between Namibia and Italy allows the All Blacks to refresh and target further improvements in closed door trainings. Such an elongated window should also ensure captain Sam Cane and fellow loose forward Shannon Frizell recover from their injuries to feature for the first time in this tournament against Italy.
Jordie Barrett’s niggling knee issue that’s prevented him playing the past two Tests appears the most serious concern after he took a limited part in the All Blacks first open training session in Bordeaux.
In terms of pressing selection headaches, the All Blacks are largely settled on their first-choice squad. Cam Roigard’s compelling man of the match performance against Namibia, though, should elevate his stocks above Finlay Christie in the halfback pecking order to replicate Tawer-Kerr Barlow’s move on TJ Perenara at the 2015 World Cup.
Such is Roigard’s dynamic running threat, as he proved with two tries and two assists in Toulouse, he could well apply pressure to Aaron Smith, too.
Leicester Fainga’anuku is the other contender pushing his case to start after consistently punching holes against Namibia. Dislodging Mark Telea from the left edge – after he claimed two tries in the defeat to France – won’t be straightforward, though.
While their precarious position dictates attention must be transfixed on Italy, the All Blacks will watch Ireland and the Springboks belt each other with interest.
Scotland and Ireland’s final Pool B fixture will ultimately determine the All Blacks’ likely quarterfinal opponent but this weekend’s showdown in Paris could send the loser of the Boks or Irish on a collision course with Foster’s men.
Every World Cup has its way of delivering upset twists. The All Blacks are determined to ensure Italy are not the latest giant killers.
“It’s a Test week off but we’ve got some hard trainings to sharpen a couple of areas of our game that will be important for the Italy test match – our carry and clean we lost a couple of balls in contact and our discipline under pressure,” All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan said.
“I’ve been looking at Italy since the end of our game. This is a big Test match for us, probably one of our biggest for a long time.”