The All Blacks’ injury crisis at lock was compounded yesterday when Luke Romano was forced to return to New Zealand because of a family bereavement.
The world champions, already without first-choice second rowers Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick for Saturday’s Chicago clash with Ireland, will miss another 26 caps of Test experience with the loss of Romano, leaving Patrick Tuipulotu as the most experienced lock in the All Blacks squad with 10 caps.
With assistant coach Ian Foster confirming no replacement will be drafted into the touring party while Romano is absent, Blues forward Tuipuloti is in contention with uncapped duo Scott Barrett of the Crusaders and Vaea Fifita of the Hurricanes to face the Ireland pack at Soldier Field.
“There’s been some sad news around our team. Luke Romano’s had a family bereavement and he’s heading home,” Foster said. “Our thoughts are with him and his family and our main priority is that he gets back home.”
There will be no panic in the All Blacks camp, with Foster confident the three fit locks in the squad can step up to the plate in Chicago.
“They’ve come in and done what we need them to do. They’ve got some good teachers around them and the boys have come on tour.
“Scott and Vaea have worked really hard to get up to speed and they’re doing a good job at it.”
Retallick (concussion) and Whitelock (ankle) are expected to join New Zealand’s northern hemisphere tour when they arrive in Europe after Saturday’s game to play Italy, Ireland in Dublin and France on consecutive weekends.
Yet there was some good news for head coach Steve Hansen with Foster reporting scrum-half Aaron Smith was back in contention.
Foster described Saturday’s showdown with Ireland as “a pretty pivotal game in our tour” as New Zealand bid to win a record 19th Test match in a row.
“We’d like to have a great performance. To come here and clearly we’ve had a few disruptions and we’re playing Ireland, who will be gunning for us, so for us we see this as a massive game.
“We’ll work on the word ‘development’ later on, this week is about performing at the top level and by doing that and having that as our focus, that’s how we grow.
“There might be a few changes here and there but it’s not about just giving guys opportunity, it’s about making sure this squad performs at a high level every week.”
The All Blacks, run so close the last time they met Ireland in Dublin in 2013 are preparing for another early onslaught from Joe Schmidt’s side, just as they experienced in that first 40 minutes when they went 17-0 down.
Which way it comes from the Irish, either aerially or out wide, will be the question, said Foster.
“They’ve got the ability to do a bit of both and we’ll discover that pretty early on. Part of that preparation is to make sure we’re ready for whatever comes. They like to kick a lot if they get put under pressure and they have a good attacking kicking game.
“It’ll be there or thereabouts but it’s about which stage of the game it comes out.”
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