The All Blacks have chosen to share the love in the selection this weekend – that’s good news for one man who continues to graft away in the background, and would be just as happy hunting pigs in the Canterbury high country, writes Scotty Stevenson.
Luke Romano no doubt feels he deserves a test start and this weekend in New Plymouth he will get one when the All Blacks face Argentina. Romano is credited with driving the All Blacks’ lineout to new heights at the Rugby World Cup in 2015, during which time he was charged with analysing and running opposition plays at training. He did a good job – the All Blacks didn’t lose a single lineout in the finals, and led the tournament in lineout steals.
Having made his All Blacks debut in 2012, Romano has since had to fight tooth and nail for a regular gig. While Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have had the starting spots on lockdown (sorry), Romano has always had competition for the bench position. Sometimes he has missed out because of a replacement strategy, at other times because another player – most recently Scott Barrett – has been favoured by the selectors.
Not required in the matchday squad for the Lions series earlier this year, Romano has earned just one cap in 2017, and just five since that World Cup. He last started a test in June, 2016 and cut short his end of year tour last year due to family commitments. He was asked to work on his ball-carrying by the All Blacks coaches leading into the Super Rugby season, and a string of high-impact performances for the Crusaders this season were evidence that he had heeded their advice.
Romano is in many ways the embodiment of the country boy tough guy image. He is at home in the wilderness, running his dogs by the light of the moon as they search for wild boars, or dropping a long line off his great mate Wyatt Crockett’s boat during summers in Golden Bay. He is not the tallest man in the All Blacks, and certainly not the biggest lock, but he is physically imposing in the way that outdoorsmen often are. He is also incredibly perceptive, and deeper than you might be inclined to give him credit for.
There’s a classic Crumpishness about Luke Romano that is simultaneously imposing and endearing. He can sit for long periods of time in contended silence, happy for the company but completely at ease in a conversational vacuum. At other times he is deeply inquisitive and remarkably revealing. He remains the only All Black I have ever met who is happy to conduct a scientific tutorial on the lunar cycle. He can be almost mystical in his thoughts on life. He’ll hate me for saying it, but he’s more than a little smitten with his partner. He’ll make a great dad.
In many ways he’s a throwback to a different age. He would have been at home in the company of the late Sir Colin Meads, and is reminiscent of the quintessentially stoic men of that era. You know the kind of bloke – why waste three words when one will do? Unless the subject calls for it, that is. In Luke Romano’s case, those subjects tend to be hunting, and rugby tactics. He’s pretty good at talking about both.
In recent months he has more often been the guy in the background, playing the role required of him by his coaches. Though he just wants to play, he has been happy to do what has been asked of him. If that is running the water for the All Blacks, then he has done it. If that is sitting on the pine for the Crusaders, then so be it. No fuss, no drama.
There’s be no fuss or drama on Saturday night in New Plymouth either. He’ll just want to go out there and do his job. He’ll walk out onto the field at Yarrow Stadium before the warm up and soak it in, hand a chocolate fish or two to the usual suspects on the sidelines and then get into his work, knowing he has another chance to show the selectors what he has got.
What they’ve got in Luke Romano is the quiet achiever in a noisy age. The oversized analyst with one eye on the moon, the dogs in the back, and the Pumas in his sights.
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