How the Rugby World Cup turned Ethan de Groot into ‘a bit of a weapon’

Ethan de Groot had a big year in the black jersey in 2023. Having established himself as the country’s premier loosehead prop late in the season prior, the 25-year-old approached the Rugby World Cup with limited international experience but in line to tackle the game’s strongest scrummagers.

Preparation for that was going well, with de Groot proving his world-class form throughout The Rugby Championship. But, then the World Cup warm-up Test against the Springboks at Twickenham rolled around.

That game was a change of pace, a game where the eventual world champions would begin harnessing the momentum that would carry them through to a second consecutive title. A game that, in classic Springbok fashion, was won up front.

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Having previously competed admirably against the mighty South African pack, de Groot was penalised in a scrum in the opening minutes, immediately putting his team on the back foot. The game’s result would be the biggest losing margin in All Blacks history, and one that projected concerns of a lack of strength and execution in the All Blacks pack.

Fast forward to round one of the tournament and de Groot’s opposite, the hulking Uini Antonio, brought out some veteran tricks to get the youngster penalised. The concerns over the Kiwi pack grew and de Groot was feeling the pressure, not helped by some messages he received online. A red card against Namibia threw salt in the wound.

From within the camp though, there was nothing but support.

“[I had] A lot of support from coaches and family,” de Groot told Stuff.

“Jase Ryan, Nic Gill, old ‘Gilby’ [Gilbert Enoka], our mental skills man. They turned me into a bit of a weapon.

“…People turn on you pretty quickly. After that France game and then getting my card the following game, you go hero to zero pretty quick, and you start getting messages and…it sort of felt like everyone turned their back on me.

“It’s the support that’s around you that really matters.

“Although it was shit getting red-carded, it was actually a bit of a blessing, I turned a negative into a positive.

“I got smoked by the trainers for a couple of weeks and came back after my two-game ban into finals footy in the best knick I’ve ever felt playing rugby.

“I think I played close to 70 minutes in the quarterfinal, the semi, and the final. So happy where I got to there.”

The All Blacks’ improved performance in the final took the game to the wire, but the team ultimately fell one point short of a fourth World Cup win.

“I’m proud of the effort. I’m proud of being in the World Cup final.

“There’s not many people that say they have done that, and I’m going to have another crack.

“Hopefully I’m going to be around long enough to maybe playing two more.”

In the meantime, de Groot returned to Super Rugby Pacific pre-season action in his Highlanders’ 41-14 win over reigning champions the Crusaders.

It was a delayed return as de Groot and his fellow All Blacks eased back into proceedings following an extended summer break, something de Groot wasn’t a huge fan of.

“Obviously we get our All Blacks stand-downs and whatnot, I’d prefer to just keep it on. I don’t like too much time off.”

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