There are many parallels between Josh Ioane and Lima Sopoaga.
Both played their provincial rugby outside of Dunedin but were lured south to join the Highlanders in Super Rugby. Both initially struggled at the provincial level but looked significantly more accomplished once they had on the blue and gold jersey. Both were also called into the All Blacks squad for the first time in the year of a Rugby World Cup.
Four years ago, to the day, the All Blacks travelled to Ellis Park to take on South Africa for the 2nd round of the Rugby Championship.
As far as test matches go, you’d be hard pressed to find a more challenging game than the Springboks in Johannesburg – it was the perfect build-up for the Rugby World Cup.
Despite that being one of the toughest matches in the calendar, however, Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors weren’t afraid to throw out a couple of debutants.
Sopoaga and Hurricanes lock James Broadhurst played their first matches for the All Blacks in that game, and both emerged relatively unscathed.
Sopoaga, in particular, put in a performance that far defied his lack of international experience – he looked like he belonged in the All Blacks 10 jersey.
This weekend, New Zealand will once again be facing off against their old foes but this time they get to play their World Cup warm-up match in front of a sold-out Westpac Stadium in Wellington. It’s a tough challenge, there’s no doubt about it, but perhaps it’s not quite as scary a prospect as the Springboks at Ellis Park.
Once again, New Zealand have an uncapped first five in their squad in the form of Ioane, but this time Hansen won’t be blooding any newbies.
Instead, the selectors have opted to play Richie Mo’unga in the 10 jersey for what will be just his third start, with Beauden Barrett shifting back to fullback.
Some punters may be asking why Hansen isn’t willing to give Ioane a shot, like he did with Sopoaga four years earlier.
Ioane is clearly the third-ranked first five in New Zealand at the moment. Damian McKenzie held that mantle until he was cut down by injury during Super Rugby whilst others who started the season with more experience than Ioane failed to assert themselves.
Should Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga go down then it will be Ioane who is called onto the reserves bench in what could be a World Cup knockout match.
Still, Hansen and co have resisted throwing Ioane into the deep end, and the short of it is that he’s simply not ready.
“We all know if Damien McKenzie were here, Josh wouldn’t be,” Hansen said of Ioane this week.
“We’re now having to take a different path with Josh and make sure we take our time with him. If you rush somebody that’s not quite ready, you take the risk of destroying their confidence.
“We’ve just got to get him ready and spend lots of time with him, and him with us.”
The biggest difference between the Sopoaga and Ioane situations is that Sopoaga had been knocking on the All Blacks door for some time before he was finally selected.
When Sopoaga made the All Blacks for the first time, he was included in the squad alongside Barrett, Dan Carter and Colin Slade – who had all spent plenty of time in the All Blacks already. Aaron Cruden would have also been in the equation were he not injured. New Zealand evidently weren’t short of first fives.
Sopoaga was already into his fifth season of Super Rugby in 2015 and had just guided the Highlanders to a championship title, so it was really a case of giving some game time to a guy who had been doing everything right at the level below.
Things are completely different in Ioane’s case. 2019 marked the young Aucklander’s second season of Super Rugby and although it would be unfair to say he’s not talented, he’s made it into the squad on the back of a lack of any other options.
Whilst Sopoaga was banging on the door back in 2015, the door has been blown off its hinges by natural forces in 2019 and Ioane has been able to walk on in without any obstacles.
Still, as the third choice first five, Ioane is going to need to get some match experience at some point.
“Every day that he’s in our environment is a learning day for him,” said Hansen.
“If the opportunity comes about that we need him, if we want to take three first fives to the World Cup, he’s going to be comfortable in his own skin and comfortable enough in the environment to be able to at some point bring him on the park.”
The All Blacks may be running out of time to get Josh Ioane up to speed for the World Cup, but there’s no point in throwing the man to the sharks. Many a talented player has had his international prospects ruined by being elevated too early and losing confidence.
The more time Ioane spends in the All Blacks environment, the more confident he’ll be when he first takes the field in the silver fern. Perhaps, then, we will see Ioane retained in the squad for the upcoming Bledisloe series against Australia.
As is Hansen’s way, he turned to his favourite racehorse metaphor to summarise where Ioane is at right now: “He’s a two-year-old and he’s not ready to race against four-year-olds.”
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