Blues back Rieko Ioane has already packed a lot into his young rugby career, though all indications are the best is still to come. MARC HINTON reports.
Add the name Rieko Ioane to the now crowded list of All Blacks midfield contenders to face the British & Irish Lions later this year. One Super Rugby game was all it took for the terrifically talented teenager to confirm he’s a natural beneath the glaring spotlight on centre stage.
Ioane has been on the New Zealand rugby fast track since he first thundered on to the sevens and provincial scene as a fledgling 17-year-old fresh out of Auckland Grammar School. Even then, more well-known as the kid brother of loose forward sensation Akira Ioane, you could see the potential dripping from him like sweat at the end of a pre-season conditioning session.
Ioane is 19 now, and all grown up at a towering 1.88m and rippling 103kg. He’s already had two seasons of provincial rugby for Auckland under his belt, a Super Rugby campaign, an Olympic sevens tilt, a series with the New Zealand Maori and a tour with the All Blacks.
He has packed a lot into a short time and all indications are he’s ready to start delivering on all that promise.
The All Blacks coaches have always had Ioane pegged as a long-term centre (they love the size, the speed, the footwork, and believe other aspects such as distribution, defence and decision-making can be developed) but took him on last November’s tour as a utility wing/midfield cover. He made two appearances on the jaunt north, coming off the bench to play on the wing against Italy and likewise at centre against France.
The fact is Ioane is equally at home on the wing and at centre, though midfield is where he has played most of his rugby coming through the grades and where he hopes to make a name for himself. Circumstances meant Blues coach Tana Umaga needed him in the No 13 jersey for Super Rugby’s season opener at the Rebels, with Sonny Bill Williams out for five or six weeks and George Moala and Rene Ranger not quite ready to hit the ground running from the off.
Ioane did not disappoint, exploding for a hat-trick of tries in an eye-catching display of destructive running rugby. He tore the Rebels defence to shreds – though, as we’d soon see, he would not be the last to enjoy some running metres at their expense – and as an early statement of intent from a young midfield contender, it spoke volumes.
‘Centre is awesome, probably my favourite position at the moment – until I get booted out by Sonny,’ he says. ‘I enjoy centre. You get a bit of space and get to finish off the work Piers [Francis] and Ihaia [West] do on the inside. It’s where I’m most comfortable. I enjoy everything about it. You get the ball a bit closer to the action and more touches.’
Umaga’s initial plan had been to throw Ioane on the wing, where his size and speed make him a difficult proposition, as he looked to find the best way to fit Moala, Ranger, Williams and the like into his lineup. But when Moala and Ranger ended up behind schedule on their recovery programmes, the youngster got the nod, and did not disappoint.
‘If you get opportunities, it’s up to you what you do with them,’ Umaga says. ‘He’s taken his with two hands – he wants to be a centre, so he’s put the pressure on us as coaches to select him. When players are playing well, we’ve got to go with those who are doing what we asked them to do.’
Ioane says he’s happy to play wherever Umaga needs him. ‘Tana’s choice is the best choice,’ is how he couches it.
For game two, a tough 41-26 road defeat to the Chiefs, it was back at outside centre, though the opportunities were decidedly more limited against a more resilient and organised defensive unit. Down the line he’s likely to move out wide as Umaga juggles his resources.
But already, on the back of his early statement at outside centre, Ioane looks set to add to Steve Hansen’s options in the midfield positions to face the British & Irish Lions in June and July. That list should include Williams, due back around week six of Super Rugby, 2016 incumbents Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown, Moala, Malakai Fekitoa and the Hurricanes’ Matt Proctor, to name but a few. Maybe even Charlie Ngatai, depending on his ongoing head problems.
Not that Ioane is tying himself in knots over the prospect of adding to his two Test caps. He’s 19, for goodness sake, and time most definitely resides on his side of the equation. He was surprised, to say the least, that he beat big brother Akira into the All Blacks fold and maintains a realistic attitude to opportunities at the highest level.
‘Neither of us were planning on rushing into anything,’ he says with a shrug. ‘He’s going to keep developing his game and see how things go, and the same applies to me. It was a bonus to make the All Blacks tour, as I didn’t think I had enough time to play well enough. It was a bonus just to be in that squad among the greatest players in the world.’
The thing with Ioane is everything is a bonus for him. Every week serves up a different lesson, a fresh perspective and invaluable experience. Hansen was eager to see him on the back of a tour and an All Blacks-directed conditioning programme, and he would have been thrilled by the early steps.
Adds All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster: ‘He’s fast, he’s strong and he’s shown us he can come in and learn pretty quickly. There’s enough there for us to start with. Where he’s got his biggest learning is that it’s Sunday to Friday at the top level. He’s a natural player and has probably just been able to rock up and play and perform. Now he’s going to have to learn the processes it takes to perform on the international stage.’
All indications early in 2017 are that Ioane is not just speedy on his feet, but a fast learner to boot. The All Blacks watch with interest.
ALL BLACKS COACH STEVE HANSEN ON IOANE
‘He can be anything he wants to be. There is no doubting Rieko has a lot of talent – we have to get him to establish a work ethic to match that talent and we will have ourselves a superstar.
‘He can’t be patchy; he needs to understand that he has to work really hard at his game seven days a week. If he does that, he will unleash a massive amount of talent and we will see a very good rugby player.
‘I have always thought he was a centre, but he is a guy who can play on the wing and that allows us to give him a little bit of time to feel comfortable in the role. On the end-of-year tour we gave him some time on the wing, but he came in and played in the midfield against France and did very well.’
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine