By Liam Napier in Bordeaux
Standing on the Stade Chaban-Delmas, soaking in the adoration from Bordeaux locals, would usually be a welcome experience for All Blacks coach Ian Foster.
Not today, though. Foster was in no mood for pleasantries after travelling to Paris and back to help mount Ethan de Groot’s defence case, only for that be dismissed in favour of a two-match suspension that will test the All Blacks depth at loosehead prop at the Rugby World Cup.
Foster had not long arrived in Bordeaux - after trekking to Paris and back with de Groot and the All Blacks lawyer Stephen Cottrell - when he fronted media after the team held a light opening training session in front of 10,000 appreciative locals.
It’s fair to say an irked Foster could not hide his frustration at the suspension decision.
“Always disappointed. It is what it is,” Foster said. “We went to Paris, a big old day, argued our case and [were] a little bit surprised but we’ll have to suck that up and take it.”
After receiving a red card late in the rout of Namibia in Toulouse last weekend, de Groot fronted an independent judicial hearing overnight Tuesday (NZT).
While de Groot conceded an act of foul play, the All Blacks maintained the red card threshold had not been met. Their argument centred on shoulder-to-shoulder contact after Namibian loose forward Adriaan Booysen suffered a dislocated shoulder in the incident.
The judiciary, however, deemed de Groot had ample time to lower his body height; that head contact occurred and the degree of danger was high. Because of the lack of an attempt to wrap his arms, mitigation was not considered for the red card.
De Groot was, therefore, handed World Rugby’s mandatory minimum mid-range six-match ban for head contact. That suspension was halved due to his clean disciplinary record and acceptance of foul play.
By completing World Rugby’s tackle school, de Groot shaves one further week off his three-test suspension, which leaves him sidelined from the All Blacks’ remaining World Cup pool games against Italy and Uruguay, but free to return for a potential quarter-final.
“I’m not sure ours was a significant shoulder to head contact,” Foster said. “I’m not going to go into detail that’s the process we’ve got to respect that. There’s lots of layers in the judiciary now between the TMOs and the bunker and even those three weren’t totally aligned on it.”
De Groot did not attend today’s public Bordeaux session but, while suspended, he is free to resume training with the team.
“He’s good, he’s frustrated,” Foster said. “It’s one of those things and we’ve got to deal with it. As frustrated as we are, we’ve got to keep moving on. He’s going to miss the next two games but he’ll have a job to do in the meantime.
“This is an inevitable part of the game and it’s happened for Ethan. There’s no excuses. We’ve got to do what we need to in Bordeaux this week and make sure we’re ready to go for what’s a big game in Lyon.”
De Groot’s absence leaves the All Blacks with two loosehead props, and confidence to amend after a difficult start to the tournament for the Highlanders front rower, who battled scrummaging issues in the opening loss to France.
Experienced Blues prop Ofa Tuʻungafasi is now in line to start the likely quarter-final-deciding pool match against Italy in Lyon, with Crusaders powerhouse Tamaiti Williams preparing for his World Cup debut off the bench.
Tuʻungafasi and Nepo Laulala led a dominant scrummaging performance against Namibia but neither offers the same mobility or ball skills as de Groot or injured tighthead Tyrel Lomax, the latter working his way back from 30 stitches to his thigh.
And while Williams proved a force with the Crusaders this year, he remains raw after playing three tests - one of which he struggled at scrum time in his sole test start against the Wallabies in Dunedin.
“They’re good players,” Foster said. “They’ve been picked for a reason. We’ve got six props, we’re one down.”
All Blacks playmaker Richie Mo’unga felt for de Groot but backed Williams to seize his expected promotion to the bench for Italy.
“I’m gutted for Ethan, it’s never nice seeing someone suspended,” Mo’unga said. “For us as a team, it’s a really good reminder we’ve got to be better in that space. It’s an area of the game that’s being cracked down on at the moment. We’ve got to show better pictures to the TMO and in replays that we’re trying to make a really good effort to keep things safe.
“The fact Tamaiti hasn’t changed in terms of his energy or being uptight is always a good sign that he’s in a good space. Whatever happens for him he’s ready for a crack at this World Cup.”
Of the All Blacks’ injured quartet, Jordie Barrett appears the most serious after taking a limited part in training. Sam Cane, Lomax and Shannon Frizell ran freely but Barrett often stood on the sideline passing the ball while the team stretched their legs in games of two-touch, counterattack and defence drills.
For now at least, Foster seems unconcerned by Barrett’s ongoing knee issue. “We’re actually getting quite settled,” Foster said. “We’ve had a few injuries but we’re climbing out of that. There’s some really positive signs in terms of the health of the squad physically.”
Get full coverage of the Rugby World Cup.