Rugby World Cup: All Blacks 'Bald Brothers' Tu'ungafasi, Laulala back en vogue in shifting front-row fortunes

A month can be a very short time in international rugby.

Five weeks ago, the All Blacks were cruising towards the World Cup, confident in a developing front-row combination of Tyrel Lomax and Ethan de Groot that had helped turn their crumbling fortunes around over the past 12 months.

In their final pre-tournament hitout, the Springboks dented that surety, even before Lomax suffered a deep leg gash that would sideline him through the opening rounds. As he worked hard to return, New Zealand also lost the services of de Groot, after copping a red card for a clumsy tackle against Namibia.

Ofa Tu'ungafasi & Nepo Laulala.
Ofa Tu'ungafasi & Nepo Laulala. Photo credit: Getty Images

As the All Blacks approach a crucial, must-win pool encounter against Italy, they have turned - by necessity - to the old heads of Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tu'ungafasi for propping stability.

"We're the lucky ones, being in a position that requires time and experience," reflected Tu'ungafasi, who make his 56th test appearance at Lyon. "Me and Nepo go back a long time.

"I think we started in 2017-18, so we've known each other, played together and played against each other for a long time. I'm grateful that we're still here and we're given another opportunity to play together."

Laulala, who lags a handful of tests behind his mate, admits the relationship goes way beyond their onfield bond.

"We shave each other's heads too," he beamed. "It's always a pleasure and an honour to run out alongside Ofa.

"It's a bonus when you have a mate that's been through, not only the good times, but all the bad times too, and it shows the true character through those tough times.

"We're very lucky. It's such a privilege and honour to be part of this team, and every opportunity we get, we're super grateful.

"I just hope we can do the jersey proud, when we run out there, and hopefully pass it along to the generation coming through."

The Blues Super Rugby teammates know their performances can dictate how the game unfolds for the rest of their team.

"It takes a bit of pressure off me leading our scrums," said Laulala. "It gives me a lot of confidence, knowing I can put my full trust in Ofa.

"Games are won and lost up front, and that's a pressure we've trained to embrace and look forward to. We try to enjoy it as well, not forgetting to have fun out there."

While the All Blacks will depend on their skills and experience against Italy, the veterans are also conscious of the role they play off the field, as they groom their replacements at this level.

Lomax, de Groot and Fletcher Newell form the next wave of front-row stock, but Tuungafasi and Laulala have also been entrusted with the education of raw rookie Tamaiti Williams, 23, who is already the heaviest ever to pull on the black jersey.

Nepo Laulala advises Ethan de Groot against France.
Nepo Laulala advises Ethan de Groot against France. Photo credit: Getty Images

"He's obviously just a little kid in a big body," chuckled Tu'ungafasi. "I was well looked after when I came into this environment by the older guys, so I feel that's my job to do the same to the kids coming through.

"He's doing really well and learning, training well and strong. He's tracking well, and I'm happy for him and excited to see what he will do when he gets his opportunity."

With Lomax returning off the bench this week and de Groot available past poolplay, this may be one of the last opportunities Tu'ungafasi and Laulala have together, before the latter takes up a contract with French Top 14 champions Toulouse next year.

Join Newshub at 8am Saturday for live updates of the All Blacks v Italy World Cup pool clash