If the All Blacks do secure a record fourth World Cup title in Paris next weekend then it will be in no small part thanks to the work of their young, ever-improving props.
New Zealand have rarely enjoyed the best of both worlds in the propping department in recent years: they’ve either fielded formidable scrummagers who have at times struggled to contribute away from the set-piece, or run with quality open field players who have rarely been able to strike fear in the hearts of their opposition pillars.
That’s changed thanks to the emergence of Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax, two young props who have well and truly cemented themselves as NZ’s premier front-rowers over the past 18 months.
The revolution in NZ seemingly kicked off ahead of the 2019 World Cup, when then-coach Steve Hansen sprung a surprise by omitting the likes of Owen Franks and Karl Tu’inukuafe from the squad to travel to Japan.
“We have said we want mobile ball-playing props that can also do their core roles … In today’s game you need props who can do more than scrum and lift in lineouts,” Hansen had said ahead of the 2019 Bledisloe Cup series.
“That’s been our challenge in the last 12 months that we have put to our front rowers. Some of them are progressing really well with it, and some of them are struggling.”
While Ian Foster likely had similar thoughts on the subject when he took over as head coach in 2020, he hasn’t had to make any high-profile cuts to the front row in his time in charge.
Joe Moody, for so long the cornerstone of the NZ scrum, missed much of the 2022 season through injury and just when he was starting to work his way back into form during this year’s Super Rugby Pacific campaign with the Crusaders, an ankle injury suffered against the Blues put him back on ice for eight weeks and effectively ended his chances of a return to the Test arena.
In fact, the big change to the front row was almost forced upon Foster, when incumbents Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Nepo Laulala were both sidelined for the All Blacks’ trip to South Africa. George Bower and Angus Ta’avao, the men tasked with starting in their absences, simply couldn’t compete with the a mighty Springboks pack in Mbombela. The following week, De Groot and Lomax were handed their first starts of the year – and they hardly put a foot wrong in a crucial 35-23 victory at Ellis Park.
When De Groot first earned an All Blacks call-up in 2021, it was on the back of his mammoth work at the set-piece with the Highlanders.
Neither player had even been named in Foster’s first squad of the year, although Lomax had spent plenty of time with the team as injury cover. De Groot, on the other hand, had been omitted from the initial squad despite an impressive debut season the previous year, with Foster suggesting that the young loosehead needed to work on his stamina.
“We think Ethan can get fitter, and we think there is more to him around getting up off the ground and getting involved. We’ve got a high regard for him and now we’ll put a plan in place to give him an opportunity to come back,” Foster said.
When De Groot first earned an All Blacks call-up in 2021, it was on the back of his mammoth work at the set-piece with the Highlanders. Just 22 years of age at the time, the youngster had made mincemeat of some considerably more experienced props during his formative years with the Highlanders. But despite the obvious upside to his game, De Groot wasn’t exactly a new model – he wasn’t the ball-carrying, dynamic front-rower that Hansen had heralded in 2019.
De Groot shed almost 10 kilograms ahead of the 2021 Super Rugby pre-season to bring his weight down to around 127kg. The official All Blacks website now lists him at 122 – and he appears to be in far better condition for it.
Against Argentina last week, De Groot made some major contributions not just in the scrums but all over the park. He was regularly getting stuck into the breakdown, slowing down Los Pumas’ attempts to quickly recycle the ball, and also completed 15 tackles – a remarkable number for a prop. It was an impressive defensive shift from the 25-year-old and perhaps his best ever performance in a black jersey.
Lomax’s rise into a borderline world-class prop is perhaps even more curious.
The Australian-born tighthead made his All Blacks debut in 2020 thanks to his industrious work around the field for the Hurricanes, but his work at the set-piece was regularly found wanting. It was only last year that the 27-year-old was churned up and spat out of the scrum by Angus Bell in Sydney, with the Hurricanes conceding five scrum penalties in the first 33 minutes of their clash with the Waratahs. Starting props Lomax and Xavier Numia were pulled from the field and replaced by Tevita Mafileo and Owen Franks and suddenly things came right for the Hurricanes, with Jason Holland’s men turning a 15-0 deficit into a 22-18 win.
What Lomax has shown during his career, however, is the crucial ability to quickly learn from his mistakes. It was only a few months following that Super Rugby clash that Lomax again found himself lining up against Belll – this time on the international stage – and he made no mistakes, winning two scrum penalties against his Australian rival.
The other area where Lomax struggled during his early years was on defence. He didn’t miss many tackles, but on more than one occasion he collected opposition players with high shots, incurring a red card for the Hurricanes and a yellow for the All Blacks during the 2020 season. Given the clamp down on dangerous hits in recent years, questions were rightly raised whether Lomax was too big a liability on the international stage.
But much like his scrummaging, Lomax has turned his tackling around in the seasons since and there haven’t been any concerns in recent times around his technique.
Both of them have got a bit more time under their belt now and it’s starting to show.
Ian Foster on Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax
Like De Groot, Lomax was in impressive form for the All Blacks against Argentina, keeping busy around the park and ensuring the scrum was always well set. The NZ pack won three penalties against Ireland in the quarter-finals and added a further two with De Groot and Lomax packing down against Los Pumas – all despite the fact both players were recently sidelined for a number of weeks due to injury and suspension.
“Yeah, they’re going good,” Foster said of his young front-rowers after the win. “They’re getting stronger, more confident, and contributing around the park.
“You’ve got to remember Tyrel hasn’t really played a lot of rugby with that cut that he got in that South African game that took him off after nine minutes, and then you’ve got Ethan, who’s had a couple of weeks holiday so both of them have got a bit more time under their belt now and it’s starting to show. So peaking just nicely, I think.”
With Tamaiti Williams and Fletcher Newell (both 23 years old) likely riding the pine for a third consecutive match next Saturday, the All Blacks will roll out four exceptionally young props against South Africa, whose youngest scrummager, Ox Nche, is still a year older than Lomax, NZ’s ‘senior’ operator.
New Zealand’s young brigade have already shown they can foot it with the best and they’ll need to give one last major push against the Springboks at the Stade de France if Ian Foster’s men are to have any chance of securing World Cup gold, especially after seeing how comprehensively South Africa were able to dominate England in the second half of their semi-final contest.
Nche and Vincent Koch demolished Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler at scrum time. So confident were the Springboks in their set-piece that they called for a scrum off one 22-metre mark – a repeat tactic from their quarter-final victory over France. A late-game penalty handed South Africa the lead over England but the hill to climb would have been much steeper for Jacques Nienaber’s men if they hadn’t been able to repel each and every one of England’s scrum feeds.
All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan was happy to lavish praise on Nche, in particular, ahead of the coming grand final showdown between NZ and South Africa.
“He is some human, isn’t he?” said Ryan on Tuesday. “Wow. He is pretty strong at what he does but we’ve got a pretty good plan we believe in as well. We’ll be up for it.
“We’ve made some good progress in a few areas. We are trending in the right direction and looking forward to a decent crack against the Boks, who we respect immensely.”
Both the All Blacks and Springboks possess dynamic backs, in-form halves and some of the best loosies in the game – but it’s the tight five where Saturday’s final will likely be decided. South Africa’s front-rowers may boast greater experience but they’ll be coming up against the best of the best of New Zealand’s new breed of props in Paris.