It took until the All Blacks’ final test match of the year, but fans and critics across New Zealand were finally treated to an exemplary performance from Blues loose forward Akira Ioane.
Not long ago, Ioane was being touted as just another player who possessed immense potential but lacked the polish needed to play international football.
Ioane proved his doubters wrong with a man-of-the-match performance against the Pumas in a game which clinched the Tri-Nations for the All Blacks and possibly handed the blockbusting blindside flanker the incumbent No 6 jersey for 2021.
Earlier in the year, however, Ioane was struggling to earn minutes for the Blues – let alone push for a black jersey.
With Tom Robinson, Dalton Papalii, Blake Gibson and Tony Lamborn on the books, plus the emergence of the supremely talented Hoskins Sotutu, Ioane found himself on the outers and had to bide his time.
It wasn’t until the Blues’ final match of the regular Super Rugby season – before the COVID-enforced break – that Ioane was finally able to earn a start, and from there the 25-year-old’s season took off.
Still, the early stages of the season were a stark contrast to two years ago when Ioane played in every single one of the Blues’ matches – but it seemed to work for the big No 8. Ioane looked fresh and hungry, and his form was rewarded with a call-up to the national side.
Ioane had travelled with the All Blacks in 2018 and played in two non-test games, but his test debut had to wait until the third Bledisloe of 2020. The blindside flanker stood out alongside Ardie Savea and Sam Cane, but was pulled from the game before halftime due to a red card incurred by prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi, putting an end to his promising debut. Weeks later, Ioane was finally called upon once more – in the All Blacks’ final match of the year.
Blues coach Leon MacDonald was quick to heap praise on the young loose forward while speaking on Sky Sports’ The Conversation podcast, but cautioned hosts Rikki Swannell and Joe Wheeler that it wasn’t the Blues that brought out the best in Ioane – it was Ioane himself.
“Firstly, I thought his performance [against Argentina] was outstanding,” MacDonald said. “[And] it was fantastic, his last test that he played until he had to go off because of the red card – he was in good knick.
Ioane scored 10 test tries in his first full season with the All Blacks, all before he turned 21.https://t.co/3VTInuP4bD
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 29, 2020
“What have the Blues done? Look, probably Akira has decided personally to make a change. I think it’s well documented around some of his troubles and tough times. I think what we’ve provided is some really good support to him, a lot of encouragement, and we’ve just been there for him really as he worked his way through … He’s got a really close relationship with Tana and Tana’s been a good mentor for him and also Tom [Coventy], being the forwards coach.
“I think we’ve been his other ‘safe place’. Obviously, he’s got his home and his family but he knows that [in] rugby, he’s well respected and well accepted there. And the boys have his back and as he started making progress and his game started going you could just see the confidence come and the way he’s playing the game now, he looks like he belongs at test rugby.”
Ioane will again face tough competition from his Blues teammate in 2021, with Gibson, Papalii, Robinson and Sotutu all still on the books, plus the likes of Under 20s star Taine Plumtree and All Black openside flanker Dillon Hunt also joining the cause.
If Ioane can maintain his form from the latter half of 2020, however, then it will take a monumental effort from one of his positional rivals to force him out of the starting loose forwards when the Super Rugby season kicks off in late February.
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