For a young man going places very, very quickly, All Blacks flank Ardie Savea certainly has learned to be patient, writes MARC HINTON.
Yes, he’s got a package of skills that stand out almost as much as his Sideshow Bob haircut, but this gifted openside flank appears to have his head round the fact that when you’re playing the long game, it pays not to be in too much of a hurry to get anywhere.
So far, Savea, the fabulous No 7 for the Hurricanes and All Blacks rookie in 2016, is showing the temperament of a world-class opening Test batsman. He’s building his innings beautifully, and playing his way into the sort of form that might soon have him on that fast track where his many fans believe he’s been headed for some time.
As at the end of August, Savea had yet to be elevated to a starting All Black. Coach Steve Hansen − probably rightly − believes that position is best occupied by Sam Cane of the Chiefs who, make no mistake, is a mighty fine footballer indeed. Cane started the first five Tests of the year, while Savea earned his first four caps off the bench and was still awaiting his run-on debut when the visit from Argentina rolled around in September.
First things first. While Savea has his supporters, there is not the sort of outcry resounding around the hills and valleys of New Zealand that there would have been if, say, Hansen had refused to elevate Beauden Barrett to his starting No 10 position. And in some ways Barrett and Savea have been dancing to a similar tune in 2016.
Both were outstanding for the Hurricanes as they went one better than their 2015 campaign, by claiming their first Super Rugby championship. Barrett was the master tactician, the line-breaking magician; and his goal-kicking was clinical as the men from the capital city finished their season on an eight-game winning streak.
But Savea? The 22-year-old took it to the next level in Super Rugby, mixing his athleticism, thigh-pumping explosiveness and withering commitment to prove the difference-maker up front for the Canes. Whether it was smashing into and out of rucks, making ball-and-all tackles, or charging clear in the open field, he made it happen for the eventual champs.
Which, frankly, was not a huge surprise. He had, after all, been groomed for this very breakthrough ever since he finished a fourth straight season in the Rongotai College 1st XV and headed out in the senior ranks in 2012 as an 18-year-old ‘next big thing’. He made the Wellington provincial side and New Zealand Sevens lineup that same year, was running around with the Hurricanes by 2013 and by year-end was touring as a designated ‘apprentice’ with the All Blacks.
Says Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd: ‘When you’re doing the talent ID thing with the young kids, there’s some who you think “well, they might come to it”. Then there are others who you think “it’s only time” and Ardie has always been one of those guys who, right from when he was at college, you knew was going to become an All Black. It was just a matter of when.’
The when is now. Sort of. With the brilliance and resilience he showed for the Canes all season, dotted with moments of jaw-dropping magic, like his incredible kick-dummy and outside swerve on Damian McKenzie in the semi-final against the Chiefs, Savea leapfrogged Matt Todd straight into the post-McCaw All Blacks.
But standing in his way has been Cane. Scan their stats for the Super Rugby season and it’s a no-contest. Savea carved up 678m against Cane’s mere 241, made 20 clean breaks to Cane’s four and left 37 would-be tacklers in his dust to Cane’s 14. The Hurricanes flank’s defence was right on the money too, with Savea succeeding with 93.2% of his tackles, to Cane’s 91.4.
But choosing between Cane and the able Savea is one of those posers for which there is no wrong answer. Diamonds or gold? Monet or Picasso? Jordan or James?
The Chiefs hardman served his time as understudy to the peerless Richie McCaw (four years to be exact) and, like Savea, he too learned the need to bide his time. Now the feeling is he deserves his chance. Plus, he brings just a little more physicality, size and presence, which doesn’t go amiss in the Test arena.
The feeling in the national camp is that, for now, Savea better serves them as an impact guy and Cane as the starter. But clearly it’s an evolving situation over which they’ll continue to watch closely,
‘Ardie has shown he’s a great impact player and we’ve seen with the Hurricanes he can start well, so there are some good choices,’ says All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster. ‘It doesn’t surprise us, having seen him a couple of years ago when we brought him in to give him a taste of it. He’s gone away and worked hard on the areas he needed to, had an outstanding Hurricanes season and is obviously keen to give it a good crack. He’s doing everything right.’
Foster says Cane and Savea are both doing exactly what has been asked of them in the All Blacks.
‘There are two different styles and we’re asking two players to do two different things. We’re pleased with both of them … I know it’s natural to compare one against the other, but they’ve both got great skills and are quality players, and that’s the spot we want to be in.’
Hansen says he’s been happy but not surprised by how Savea has performed for him, especially off the bench against the Welsh in June.
‘He was one of the standouts in Super Rugby. He’s a big man now. He’s developed and matured, and he’s a pretty special player.’
For now, Savea is just happy to be part of the most dominant squad in the history of Test rugby. He understands that good things come to those who wait and continue to hone their craft. He waited nearly three seasons to get another crack in the All Blacks environment. He can wait as long as he needs to for that black No 7 jersey that drove him to sign a new two-year deal with NZ Rugby that will take him through till the end of 2018.
By then he will be backing that his patience and perseverance has paid off, and he renegotiates in the shadow of the World Cup from an even stronger position. Don’t ever say Savea doesn’t know how to play the long game.
FIVE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SAVEA
– He is the younger brother of All Blacks wing Julian Savea by a little over three years. He is also outsized by his backline big bro, with Julian standing at 1.92m and weighing in at 109kg, while Ardie is 1.88m and has just bulked up to 100kg.
– It seems Ardie was born to lead. He was head prefect at his high school, Rongotai College, captained the 1st XV (and topped 50 games for them over four years) and led the New Zealand Schools and U20 sides. Naturally, he’s tipped as a Canes captain in the not-too-distant future.
– His 1st XV coach Justin Gray said he ‘had the heart of a lion’ as a player, and Canes assistant Richard Watt has compared him to All Blacks legend Michael Jones: ‘With his sheer athleticism and pace, he’s got some pretty special qualities.’
– He has a neck tattoo he got while still at school. It is of his surname, surrounded by six stars, representing his family members.
– He was expected to be part of the New Zealand Olympic sevens squad, but after declaring his availability, had a change of mind during Super Rugby, earning the wrath of his bosses at national headquarters, who said they were ‘disappointed’ with his decision.
– This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine