The All Blacks have nine days until their World Cup quarterfinal in Paris – and may need every one of them to get injured starting tighthead prop Tyrel Lomax fit to face what looks set to be the No 1 side in the world.
Lomax’s medial ligament (knee) injury was the abiding negative to come out of the All Blacks’ 11-try 73-0 drubbing of Uruguay on Friday (NZT) to wrap up their Pool A commitments for the tournament – a result that clinches a last-eight spot for the New Zealanders who will now sit back and watch the rest of the round play out to determine their fate.
But it’s likely they will finish second in the pool, and face the group B winners, who will be Ireland, providing they don’t suffer an unlikely implosion in their final match against Scotland in Paris on Sunday (8am NZT). Given they’re riding a 16-test win streak, and playing at a level beyond but a few teams at this event, that seems unlikely.
And losing Lomax, who has become Ian Foster’s first-choice tighthead since part-way through last year, would be a massive setback against a side as strong, disciplined and unerring as the Irish up front. Foster hopes it doesn’t come to that, but conceded after the eventual runaway victory over Uruguay it was a prospect he had to at least consider.
The All Blacks actually lost both their tighthead props in the match, with Lomax limping off in just the ninth minute and his replacement Fletcher Newell also replaced late in the piece.
“Fletcher was largely precautionary on his knee, but Tyrel is a bit more serious,” said Foster. “We don’t know how bad it is. It looks like a medial, but doesn’t look too bad. He’s got a bucketload of ice on his knee at the moment and we’ll look at that over the next 48 hours.”
Asked if Lomax was a prospect to play in the quarterfinal, Foster hedged his bets somewhat.
“Medial ligaments can be a small strain or a large strain,” he said. “We won’t know for another 24 hours, but he was moving OK afterwards. We’ll look at him over the weekend, but fortunately we’ve got a couple of extra days [until the quarterfinal] which could be meaningful for us.”
If Lomax can’t go, veteran Nepo Laulala would step in as starter, with Newell providing bench cover. Ofa Tuungafasi, playing loosehead at this tournament, is also capable of switching sides. The All Blacks do welcome Ethan de Groot back from suspension, but the regular starting No 1 has not played since he came off the bench against Namibia and was red-carded for a high hit.
The All Blacks, nonetheless, entered the knockout stages with a decided spring in their steps, reckoned their coach, after scoring 36 tries, and putting together an aggregate score of 240-20, over their last three pool games following the first-up defeat to the hosts.
And Friday’s (NZT) quashing of the abrasive, combative Uruguayans was no mean feat after the New Zealanders had been held to 0-0 until almost the first-quarter mark. They scored all 73 of their points over the final 60 minutes of the contest. Remember, the French did not even manage a bonus-point in their 27-12 victory over the South Americans.
Foster said his team had responded just how he tasked them since the 27-13 defeat to the French. “We’ve dealt with each challenge and I believe we’ve grown our game to a point we’re ready to go into this quarterfinal really well prepared. Whatever happens, whoever we play, it’s going to be a massive game, but that’s what quarterfinals should be. So we’re ready.”
And Foster brushed off a theory that three romps would not have his team prepared for what Ireland, or South Africa for that matter, are set to bring.
“It is what it is … people were saying [after the French game] we were struggling. Even before the Italy game that was going to be a massive challenge for us. We’ve put ourselves under pressure to play well.
“It’s a very motivated team. We know we’re not perfect, and still have some areas to grow. But we’re really confident in the areas we think we need to be ready for. That first 20 minutes [against Uruguay] was pretty tough, and we had to show a different sort of patience.