Written by Max Sharp.
Those, including Sir John Kirwan, who want to shuffle the All Blacks' backline into oblivion halfway through a World Cup cycle, may not realise that regardless of how hard you reshuffle the backs, the biggest problem in New Zealand right now, is with the tight-five forwards.
Out in town, the supermarket and other places, I have had conversations about the game in which just a casual observer has felt the All Blacks' players are getting too big to be effective in the game; that "our game is slowing down".
The 2021 season review, on the coaches, uploaded on The Black Jersey's YouTube channel.
The 2021 season review, on the forward pack, also uploaded on YouTube.
In a brutal season review, I explained that the All Blacks' tight-five forwards, especially the props, had a lack of mobility around the pitch and their inability to quickly reach rucks and allow for turnovers or decent ball for the backs, making the 2021 season just that much tougher on the All Blacks.
In the 2021 season review; I gave the props a grading of C-; because while Ian Foster has done a brilliant job of spreading the minutes between his first-to-fourth choice options in both jerseys; the players' performance in the ruck left much to be desired.
The All Blacks' Tighthead Prop Depth Chart (2020-21). Grey minutes are due to a card.
When reviewing the props, I specifically outlined the devastation two knee injuries had on Ofa Tu'ungafasi and his form, how his return from injury was part of the problem. Luckily, in 2022, he has recovered and is playing well again; this will be a massive assistance to the All Blacks.
However, Karl Tu'inukuafe has been hit hard by injury in 2022 and has yet to reach his best form. Nepo Laulala has received a red card this season, while his tackle percentage remains at just 76%, not very far above average for a professional rugby player. Tyrel Lomax hasn't exactly kicked on sadly; whilst Joe Moody will likely return to playing in May 2023.
George Bower may be providing some acceptable running stats after 11 games in 2022, while he has won 4 turnovers. His tackle percentage is lower than all of the props mentioned above apart from Laulala however, it is at 80% (57/71 tackles) and as explained in previous "Player Ratings" articles; his ruck speed has not been at a high enough level for the Crusaders.
Potential absences of Tu'inukuafe, Laulala, Lomax, Bower and Moody from the mid-year tests in 2022, means a trio of Angus Ta'avao, Ethan de Groot, Ofa Tu'ungafasi; are certainties for selection. A case of the aforementioned players' exclusion and inclusion respectively, would especially shake up the depth chart at loosehead prop. We'll read up on three props who could possibly be selected for the All Blacks in a maiden season, for 2022.
The All Blacks' Loosehead Prop Depth Chart (2020-21).
Tamaiti Williams - Crusaders
Born: 10th August, 2000 (21 years old)
9 games (261 minutes) played
2 tries scored
61 metres (2.7m per carry)
2 defenders beaten
18/23 tackles (78%)
5 turnovers won
Williams, who could become the heaviest-ever All Black, began the 2022 season as the Crusaders' third-choice loosehead prop, while he has also played minutes at tighthead prop in 2022; in order to allow game time for Finlay Brewis. Despite not having the flashiest stats for the season, these aren't exactly telling the full story at a surface level.
Despite having played 171 fewer minutes than Bower in 2022 though; Williams has won more turnovers. As Tu'ungafasi is the only tighthead prop in the All Blacks who is known for winning turnovers, this will come in handy. Williams' tackle percentage can't exactly be criticised too much either because of it's small sample size.
Williams' huge frame of 1.96m and 144kg has also been used properly, most importantly. The impact he has bought off the bench time-and-time again, has had no regard for his stat sheet, because he is making a massive difference at rucks, by cleaning out his opposition and giving solid ball to the halfback off the base. At just 21 years old, with 3 Māori All Blacks caps already, he has a future bigger than himself.
Ollie Norris - Chiefs
Born: 11th December 1999 (22 years old)
8 games (378 minutes) played
75 metres run (2.7m per carry)
3 defenders beaten
47/52 tackles (90%)
5 turnovers won
Ollie Norris and Kaleb Trask, training for the Chiefs at Sky Stadium. Photo: Max Sharp.
While the 1-cap Māori All Black wasn't exactly the largest player on his Super Rugby debut, he's transformed from a high school loose forward and into a crucial impact player for the Chiefs. Though now 126kg, he remains incredibly mobile, a trait that Ian Foster continues looking for.
Norris has put up the stats to back his ruck speed up as well, he is a member of a Chiefs side with a 95% scrum win ratio for 2022. Norris has matched Williams for turnovers won, with 5, while you can never ignore a player with a tackle completion rate of 90%; that's huge.
Though Alex Hodgman of the Blues has run more metres than Norris and has a tackle completion of 92% (55/60 tackles), the All Blacks have been well-known for their succession plan for a long time. Norris still has time to overtake Hodgman's minutes on the depth chart and if he's going to be capped ahead of 2023, now is the time.
With Tu'inukuafe and Moody's injury troubles and Hodgman's age-to-cap ratio (28 years old and 4 caps), Norris must make his debut off the bench, against Ireland.
Jermaine Ainsley - Highlanders
Born: 8th August 1995
10 games (596 minutes) played
84 metres run (2.15m per carry)
1 defender beaten
74/82 tackles (90%)
Perhaps one of the biggest wildcard calls in All Blacks history, but Ainsley has surely played himself into consideration. Although he played his first 3 tests for Australia, debuting against the All Blacks in 2018, the 122kg prop is now eligible for them.
Jermaine Ainsley in a YouTube Q+A with Max Sharp, about his career and possible All Blacks aspirations.
He was born in Cromwell, Otago, while his father, Joe McDonnell, played 8 tests in 2002; scoring a try on debut, against Italy. Ainsley is eligible due to World Rugby's new "birthright amendment" laws; meaning a player must stand down for three seasons of test rugby, prior to representing a new nation in which they originally had eligibility.
Ainsley and his teammate Ethan de Groot have heavily been relied on by the Highlanders in 2022, the team's scrum has struggled when either has been off the pitch, the team's 92% scrum win ratio is the lowest of the New Zealand-based sides.
Ainsley beats Nepo Laulala for most statistics, including metres per carry and tackle percentage; whilst his running metres of 84 from 39 carries, are far superior to Tyrel Lomax's 45 metres from 21 carries. At 26 years old, Ainsley is still young enough to have a meaningful career with the All Blacks, while also providing a solution, to Laulala's severe form slump.
Ian Foster, the Head Coach, is likely to select six props for the All Blacks in 2022, picking George Bower and Ethan de Groot as loosehead specialists, Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Angus Ta'avao as cover for both sides of the scrum, whilst picking Nepo Laulala and Tyrel Lomax as his tighthead specialists.
My selections however, would be far different to Foster's. Your ideas and mine don't mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but it's always a nice dream to name our own squad. If I was making the call, I'd be starting Ethan de Groot and Ofa Tu'ungafasi against Ireland, with Ollie Norris and Angus Ta'avao off the bench. Tamaiti Williams and Jermaine Ainsley would become my third-choice players.
After all, the biggest problem the All Blacks face ahead of 2023's Rugby World Cup, is within the tight-five forwards.