For one of the best wings the game has seen, the man they call 'The Bus' has had his issues to overcome, writes MARC HINTON.
Somewhere on Steve Hansen’s to-do list another big tick is entered. ‘The Bus’ is back running on schedule, and there can be no doubt the All Blacks are a better team for continuing to show patience and perseverance when it comes to the special case that is Julian Savea.
For a rugby player blessed with so much natural ability and raw power, the 26-year-old, 108kg wing from Wellington sure has been a problem child over the past few seasons. In 2015, before the World Cup, Hansen had to send him on a three-week boot camp to lift his fitness levels because he turned up for the start of the campaign ‘overweight’.
He missed the first three Tests of the buildup, but the plan worked. He emerged as one of the All Blacks’ star performers in England, eventually breaking a near year-long try drought as they completed that historic back-to-back global triumph.
Again this year, the journey has been precipitous, to say the least, for the most productive wing in Test rugby. He showed up for the Super Rugby season in poor shape and was eventually benched by the Hurricanes at the business end because of fitness and form concerns. That flowed on and he found himself similarly discarded by Hansen during the Wales series in June and into the Rugby Championship for ‘over-thinking things’ and becoming a little too predictable.
Hansen’s theory was that Savea, as fit and as trim as he’d been in their care, just needed a little space to clear his head, regain his confidence and relax and let those excellent instincts of his take over. Or as assistant coach Ian Foster added: ‘When you’re finding your confidence and you’re a big, fast ball-carrier it’s the soft skills that are often the last things to come right. It’s just the hardness of the hands. Once that comes right, we’re pretty sure he’ll be away.’
Of course Hansen and his able lieutenants were right. Staying the course with Savea was not a difficult decision, given the man’s freakish try-scoring record (he had dotted down 43 times in 48 Tests before the All Blacks’ final 2016 Rugby Championship game, against the Boks, closing in on becoming his country’s greatest scorer of all time), and the fabulous feats he has already performed in the black jersey. And if you know the All Blacks coaching staff, you are well aware they always back themselves to get the best out of their men (Exhibit A, the resurgent Israel Dagg).
So it was no surprise to anyone in Hansen’s coaching outfit when Savea eventually refound his mojo, benefiting firstly from a hamstring injury to Waisake Naholo and then from his own return to try-scoring action. Eventually that confidence Hansen had identified came flooding back, and The Bus was running on all cylinders.
Savea scored a try off the bench against the Wallabies in Sydney, another back as a starter against the same foes in Wellington, and touched down in his best outing of the year against the Pumas in Hamilton and Springboks in Christchurch. That last five-pointer broke a six-Test drought against the Boks.
By now he was back to his blockbusting best, beating defenders with ease, putting in the big hits, making the classy offloads and fielding those testing high balls. In that Test against South Africa he also brought up the special feat of starting an international for the first time with his younger brother Ardie.
‘You guys [media] can be the judges about whether I’m back to my best but, for me, it’s about playing rugby,’ Savea said after those home Tests. ‘I’m enjoying it and playing with a clear mind, really, not caring about making mistakes. That’s the mindset I’ve gone through over the past few weeks. Obviously at the beginning of the year I didn’t turn up in the right nick. But I’m training hard and I’ve had a good support team around me.’
Savea also refused to label it the toughest year of his career, suggesting his 2011 campaign, when he came off from being World U20 Player of the Year and struggled to make an impact with the Hurricanes or Wellington provincial side, was much more of a test of his resolve.
‘It can definitely get frustrating, but you’ve just got to take it how it is, take it on the chin and work hard to get back out there,’ he reflected. ‘I’m really thankful to get on the pitch. It’s very hard sometimes − maybe not playing for a few weeks and then, when you get your opportunity, you try too hard to impress. I guess that’s what I’m trying to get out of my mind.’
Savea is not the first powerful All Blacks No 11 to be challenged by form, fitness and confidence issues. Jonah Lomu, of course, had to overcome all sorts of demons throughout his great career, eventually ended prematurely by the kidney disease that would claim his life. And, before him, Va’aiga (‘Inga the Winger’) Tuigamala was a world-class operator wide on the left side who had a few issues maintaining his best condition.
What all three have in common is, at their best, they were extraordinary performers for the All Blacks. And there can be no doubt that as these New Zealanders of Hansen’s rattle up the Test victories with incredible ease, they are so much better for having Savea back marrying that wonderful mixture of power, pace and precision − and with a mind seemingly as free as a bird.
One day Hansen will have big calls to make. He will have Ben Smith, Dagg, Savea, Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder to cover his bases in the back three, and that’s an embarrassment of riches that reinforces why they’re head and shoulders the best team in world rugby.
But right now, with The Bus running on time, and with that big tick beside his name, Hansen’s No 11 spot is back as the proverbial no-brainer.
– This article first appeared in the November edition of SA Rugby magazine.