Written by Max Sharp
In our second article on rating the individual players throughout the All Blacks' rollercoaster ride of a 2022 season, we examine a position with perhaps the most improved and also, the most alarming performances ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
With Ian Foster opting to cap five players in the number 1 jersey and another five in the number 3 jersey (not taking a red card vs Ireland into account), there's definitely a lot to talk about at both loosehead and tighthead, with the massive improvements of Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax spearheading the conversation.
The All Blacks' 2020-22 Loosehead Prop Depth Chart.
Loosehead Prop Season Reviews:
Ethan de Groot (417 minutes played) - 8/10
When de Groot was axed ahead of the Ireland series for no reason, despite proving himself as the nation's best loosehead prop during a Super Rugby season, in which he showed great improvement from 2021, I was furious at the selectors. They came up with a cop-out excuse that de Groot "lacked fitness".
As soon as Jason Ryan replaced John Plumtree as forwards coach however, de Groot bought his signature mongrel in the breakdown to test level, accumulating 417 minutes played across nine tests, starting in all but one, while showing excellent discipline, conceding just 7 penalties.
Not only does de Groot indeed possess supreme fitness to hit rucks quickly, but he also had a field day demolishing the scrums of South Africa, Wales and his nation of birth, Australia. Having had just a single bad game this season, de Groot could well have the potential to reach Tony Woodcock's level of greatness.
George Bower (502 minutes played) - 2/10
When I first met George Bower, at a Crusaders vs Hurricanes game in 2019, I left with a lasting impression of how much of a good person he is. I then had a similar interaction with Bower when meeting him at a 2021 game, trimming down some body fat and regular game time with the Crusaders saw Bower make his test debut in 2021, a move I then supported.
2022 however, exposed that Bower simply isn't up to test level. His tackle rate for the year was 51/63 (80%), but when looking back on matches against Ireland and England, one will find that Bower's inability to drift far enough from a ruck, cost the All Blacks 6 out of the 31 tries they conceded in 2022 - a single player's failure to improve, is responsible for 19% of the tries the team conceded.
Bower's ruck speed is also far slower than de Groot's, while his scrum technique would also be bettered by many fellow test players. While I highly respect Bower's personality based on interactions, his performances in 2022 left much to be desired.
Ofa Tu'ungafasi (201 minutes played) - 5/10
Beginning the season with two starts at tighthead prop, a long period out with a neck injury then restricted Tu'ungafasi to just another 78 minutes, with 73 coming at loosehead prop instead. His 50th test was a long-time coming and well-deserved, a high-profile examination isn't possible to the same degree as other players though, due to a lack of game time.
Ofa Tu'ungafasi (left) prepares to lift Scott Barrett (centre left) in the lineout at Eden Park against Ireland. Photo: Max Sharp.
Playing well against Ireland in the first test, a yellow card in the second, 5 minutes before injury in the third test and then bench appearances against Wales, Japan and Australia, it's difficult to tell if Tu'ungafasi is still seen by the selectors as an experienced player to bring off the bench, or if they are transferring minutes from one depth chart to the next, to make him the third-choice loosehead prop.
Karl Tu'inukuafe (28 minutes played) - No rating
With the iconic "Big Karl" struggling due to a back injury in recent times, he chose to accept a contract to play with Montpellier, in France, at the end of 2021.
Before leaving New Zealand shores though, Tu'inukuafe was given two more test caps for a farewell, though this is not enough to rate an entire season on.
Aidan Ross (19 minutes played) - No rating
After many injuries, the former Bay of Plenty captain finally got his test debut. While 19 minutes of test rugby was a disappointing total and not enough to rate him on, it was great to finally see Ross in a black jersey.
The All Blacks' 2020-22 Tighthead Prop Depth Chart.
Tighthead Prop Season Reviews:
Tyrel Lomax (446 minutes played) - 8/10
Following some disappointing performances in the scrum for the Hurricanes across both 2021 and 2022, I was in favour of Lomax's axing from the All Blacks. Being dropped appeared to be a huge wake-up call though. Having made his test debut all the way back in 2018, a 26-year-old Lomax has finally fulfilled his potential and become the first-choice, starting in 7 of 9 test caps.
At 128kg and 1.94m tall, Lomax has become the textbook definition of the modern prop under Jason Ryan's tutelage, while with weight like that, he has always been a powerful carrier.
At 26 years old, the Australian-born son of former Kiwis prop, John Lomax, will now have no regrets about leaving the Rebels to become an All Black, as he is now certainly on his way to 50 test caps and a World Cup win in 2027.
Nepo Laulala - 228 minutes played (4/10)
While I ranked Laulala the 35th-best rugby player in the world for the 2021 calendar year, for powerful scrummaging and big hits, he has been off the pace since a red card in the 2022 Super Rugby season.
Laulala's tackle rates lacked consistency in 2022, with 11/14 vs Ireland, 5/5 vs Australia, 3/5 against Japan, 7/7 against Scotland and then a poor 2/4 vs England, for a total percentage of 80%; not as high as last season. At 31 years old, Laulala is now lacking venom in his carries, while his ruck speed has become slower.
His form slump isn't looking good and he needs a strong run of consistent game time in order to be at his best, especially with 2023 en route.
Fletcher Newell - 148 minutes played (6/10)
Did Newell make his test debut a wee early? Probably. But it was of utmost importance for Foster and his crew, to finally give a 22-year-old prop a toss into the baptism of fire, at Ellis Park Stadium for his debut. While it wasn't the up-and-coming prop I wanted to replace the old guard, Newell has come in to provide the power many of us asked for.
His potential is certainly at a world-class level and massive improvements in ruck speed from Newell certified this fact, while a highly accurate tackle rate of 13/15 for the season is solid stuff for a bloke who has yet to start in a test match.
The jury is still out on wether Newell could be trusted to start in a match of importance, but one thing we've learned is that he can certainly front up to make some impact in the scrum late in a game. We're yet to see the best of Newell and that's certainly a good thing.
Angus Ta'avao - 78 minutes played (3/10)
Ta'avao produced solid work in Super Rugby, putting forward the case his days in black weren't done yet; players do find caps harder to accumulate with age after all. Doing a solid job off the bench to open the season against Ireland, we then saw Ta'avao begin a sickening spell with injury, that strongly affected his performances on the pitch.
Angus Ta'avao (18) will hopefully return from injury in 2023. Photo: Max Sharp.
A horrific head-on-head collision with Garry Ringrose in Dunedin against Ireland, saw Ta'avao sent off due to his upright position in the tackle, his return against South Africa was then likely the worst performance of his whole career; the lot of Ta'avao's form sadly went with that concussion, opening the door for Newell.
He was set to get a test career lifeline with the All Blacks XV, before a spinal injury he suffered while playing for Auckland ruled him out. It's always bad news to see a player's test career go out on a low, so fingers crossed this isn't it for Ta'avao, who won't want to be remembered for the red card and the Mbobela nightmare. Get well soon mate.
Props Season Rating: 5/10