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Ioane a man apart

  • 10 Jan 2018
Rieko Ioane in SA Rugby magazine Rieko Ioane in SA Rugby magazine

All Blacks wing Rieko Ioane was the world’s best in 2017, writes MARC HINTON.

It was some finish to some year. And Rieko Ioane sidled up to the Kiwi media pack in the bowels of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium after his final signature flourish for 2017 wearing his All Blacks number ones, a gee-shucks grin and just a hint of contentedness. He may be arguably the best rugby player on the planet, but he remains very much a kid at heart.

So there was not a hint of swag about the 20-year-old Aucklander after he had scored two tries, and created two more to play the star role in a 33-15 win that sealed an unbeaten tour for the All Blacks to follow their unblemished Rugby Championship. Humble only begins to describe this young man, who still lives at home with Mum and Dad, and understands very much where his bread is buttered. Yes, he gets the meat pies (tries, for the uninitiated), and sets them up too, but he is well aware that there is a good deal of grunt up front to enable him to do so.

‘I’ve definitely learned a lot,’ reflected Ioane of a year that saw him score 10 tries in 11 Tests. ‘Being in this environment will do that to you. If you chuck any of the Super Rugby wings in New Zealand into this environment they’ll do exactly the same thing. I’m lucky enough to be where I am, learning off the people around me and running lines off the likes of [Ryan] Crotty and Sonny [Bill Williams].’

Twenty-four hours later, the strapping wing would be wearing the same suit and the same happy look, this time at the World Rugby Awards night in Monte Carlo, where he would be judged Breakthrough Player of the Year, and miss out as a beaten finalist to teammate Beauden Barrett for World Player of the Year.

But sometimes the judges just flat out get it wrong. This was surely one of those occasions. Ioane, from his first exhilarating start for the All Blacks in 2017 on his   home Eden Park turf, to his last exquisite masterpiece under the roof in Cardiff, has been a man apart. Not just the best player for the best team in the world, but the standout rugby figure on the entire planet.

It’s a big call to make for such a young man playing his first full season of Test rugby (he made two appearances off the bench for the All Blacks on the 2016 end-of-year tour). But Ioane, the younger of the Blues brothers seemingly destined to grace the biggest of rugby stages, was that good throughout 2017. At 1.89m and 103kg he’s a fair size for someone who can run so damn fast.

He’s awfully good on his feet too, strong in the tackle, takes the high ball pretty well and is fast developing into a fellow who can create tries almost as efficiently as he can finish them.

Yes, Barrett is a superbly gifted No 10 for the same All Blacks team, and he did score 168 Test points in 2017. (Not bad for someone who is supposedly a flaky kicker.) But he simply did not make the same impact, nor play with the same consistency, nor exhibit quite the breathtaking mixture of raw power, sizzling speed and fabulous dexterity as Ioane.

Barrett is a brilliant player. That’s a given. But Ioane’s body of work, say we at SA Rugby magazine, was greater, his level of play higher and the sheer consistency with which he went about his work – anybody remember a bad day at the office in 2017? – was uncanny.

The man child who plays with a mixture of Lomu’s power, Cullen’s elusiveness and Umaga’s subtlety is our Player of the Year.

You could add resilience to his qualities. In 2017 alone he suffered a bad enough dose of sickness to miss the deciding Lions Test, was laid low by mumps for the first week of the end-of-year tour and hurt his shoulder so severely in the 22-17 victory over Scotland in Edinburgh that his coach pronounced him a non-starter for the year-ender against Wales in seven days’ time. He bounced back from each setback almost instantly and with no visible drop-off in standard.

Others graced the world’s rugby fields with distinction in 2017. Lions and England stars Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje and Wallabies fullback Israel Folau were World Rugby’s other beaten finalists behind Barrett, while Ireland and Lions scrumhalf Conor Murray, All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick, Bok hooker Malcolm Marx and Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg also played some top-quality footy.

But this is what All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had to say about his new wonder wing after that performance against Wales: ‘He’s phenomenal. If we can keep his feet on the floor, he could go anywhere, that kid. He’s quick, isn’t he? Every time he gets the ball you think “Wow, what’s going to happen?” He only needs half a yard because he’s so quick, and he’s strong with it, a big man. We knew there was a bit of talent there, but he’s been phenomenal. Right from the get-go in his first Test to this last one, he’s been exceptional.’

Even Warren Gatland, who saw him at his best for the Lions and Wales, could not help but gush with praise: ‘He’s not bad, is he? There are not many weaknesses in his game. He’s quick and powerful, he’s got great footwork and he scores tries. He’s got a few more years in him ... there’s no doubt he’s pretty special. Any team in the world would love to have a player of that quality.’

Ioane, whose older brother Akira also made his All Blacks breakthrough in 2017, reflects with pride on his work for the year, but understands there is still so much more to do, to learn and to achieve.

‘It has been a big 12 months. It’s just full credit to the team; they’ve been playing awesome, they’ve been setting me up and helping boost my confidence and giving me encouragement in everything I do,’ he says.

‘As a back three, with Damian [McKenzie] and Wise [Waisake Naholo], we’ve worked pretty well all year with Daggy [Israel Dagg], Bender [Ben Smith] and Nehe [Milner-Skudder] all out injured. We’ve come together well to form a pretty good back three. I’m happy with how everything has panned out and looking forward to ripping into 2018.’

The funny thing is, the best wing in the world in 2017 still yearns to play outside centre, a position he describes as his ‘long-term goal’ and where the Blues plan to run him, if possible, in Super Rugby.

Ah, the impetuosity, and brilliance, of youth. Wing, centre, you name it, this kid will take some stopping.

– This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine


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