Updated: Jan 24
Written by Max Sharp
While there are many young loosehead props emerging from the Bunnings NPC and transitioning to Super Rugby, tighthead prop looks to be more of a concern long-term for New Zealand.
In 2021, the 15-test season saw not just the first and second-choice props for each jersey get game time, but also the third and fourth-choice props in both the loosehead and tighthead jerseys. The depth chart for both jerseys, has indeed come very close to an ideal depth chart.
(Image: Ideal Depth Chart)
In the loosehead prop jersey, Atu Moli didn’t manage enough game time for the Chiefs after returning from a long injury-enforced break from rugby. Moli’s absence not only saw the rise of Oliver Norris at the Chiefs, but it also saw 29-year-old George Bower make his international debut, deep into his career.
Bower, a former pupil at Taita College, debuted for Otago in 2014, but did not play a game for them again until 2018. Bower, a very humble man who I’ve met twice, trimmed down significantly from when I met him at the end of his second Super Rugby cap (2019) in comparison to this 2021 Super Rugby season. This dedication to his craft allowed Bower to play the most minutes at Loosehead Prop out of every player in 2021.
Max Sharp meets George Bower after a game, 2021.
Karl Tu’inukuafe, at 28 years old, appears to be seen as more of an impact player who can come on to demolish opposing scrums in the second half of tests, this was apparent when Bower earned back-to-back starts throughout Joe Moody’s absence due to injury.
Moody, a 33-year-old Rugby World Cup winner and veteran of 57 tests, has proven once again to be one of the country’s elite scrummagers, who also has the ability to run the ball on the rare occasion he receives a pass. His current contract expires at the end of the 2022 Super Rugby season, which creates suspicions that he could potentially retire afterwards. If not, expect Moody to be present at 35 years old during the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Although 4-test player Alex Hodgman (Blues) was one of the finds of the 2020 season, he was overlooked for international selection following a red card during Super Rugby. The Australian-born Southland prop, Ethan de Groot, allegedly lost 9kg over the off-season to rise from a relative unknown to the Highlanders’ first choice loosehead prop. De Groot played 188 minutes for the All Blacks in 2021, scoring career-first tries for both the Highlanders and All Blacks through the season. De Groot’s play will only improve with time, as he is still 23 years old.
The loosehead prop depth chart is in a good place, whereas Tamaiti Williams (Crusaders) is sure to debut for the All Blacks in the next two years. Aidan Ross, Oliver Norris (both Chiefs) as well as Hodgman, remain on the selectors’ radar.
(Loosehead Prop Depth Chart 2020-2021)
Tighthead prop however, is a far more concerning situation for Ian Foster. The first-choice props showed their extreme prowess at the scrum through 2021, but their ability to contest opposition rucks must come under scrutiny. The All Blacks were able to win 711 of their 753 rucks against other tier 1 nations in 2021 (94.5%), while the All Blacks only averaged 5.4 turnovers per game in these 10 tests. The tighthead props, all four of them, will be particularly disappointed with their ability to contest these rucks; there needs to be a tight-five forward willing to clean out opposing players, giving loose forwards a chance to steal ball.
Nepo Laulala has earned back his status as the first-choice number 3 in the country, alongside a firm place in the Blues’ first-choice XV. The 30-year-old finished the year with 40 test caps to his name and would have far more if it weren’t for previous injuries. Although not a natural with his ball-handling, Laulala is perhaps the best scrummager in the country behind his Blues team mate, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, who only played 5 tests off the bench due to injury in 2021.
The 6’5 Tu’ungafasi played all of his minutes off the bench this season and there was an observable lack of match fitness in his play. Tu’ungafasi will undoubtedly return to form in the 2022 season and if so, the All Blacks will be in a much better place, with him in good form.
Tyrel Lomax, also born in Australia, appeared to have a case of what some would consider second-year syndrome at test level. Although his debut was in 2018, only his first year back in this country (he lived in Wainuiomata for a significant length of his childhood), Lomax did not play his second test until 2020. The 25-year-old tighthead prop played 8 tests in 2021 and appeared to have lost discipline this season, although Ian Foster has strong faith in his progress at the scrum. Lomax, like de Groot, Tu’inukuafe and Bower, also appears to have trimmed down throughout his professional career, but at 25, one does begin to wonder if potential is a word you can still use to describe a professional athlete.
Angus Ta’avao’s re-call to international rugby after a Super Rugby season free of injury is not the problem with the tighthead prop jersey, but definitely a symptom of it. Ta’avao at 31 years old, has only played 20 tests and although he possesses the athletic gift of mobility, Ta’avao is definitely the fourth-choice player in the number 3 jersey when it comes to the scrum.
All of the tighthead props in the team, barring Lomax, are likely past the mid-way points of their professional career, which paints a worrying picture for the future of the jersey. Hopefully Fletcher Newell (Crusaders) and Saula Ma’u (Highlanders) will see their careers blossom in the 2022 season, youthful energy is always appreciated in the wider training squad of international rugby teams.
(Tighthead Prop Depth Chart 2020-2021)
All eight of the 2021 All Black props are incredible scrummagers, no question. The position’s Grade for the year, ultimately comes from their lack of urgency to get to the breakdown quick enough. Mobility is the main work-on for the players during their off-season.
Final Grade: C-