Analysis: The one area of Rieko Ioane's game that needs fixing before he can become an international centre
The 20-year-old who turned the rugby world upside down in 2017 as an electric winger has always held the ambition to become a centre, where he played as a schoolboy at Auckland Grammar and in 2014 with New Zealand Schools.
The opportunity beckoned to become an All Black through the left wing, so that was the path that was taken.
Now at 22 years-old, Ioane sits at a crossroads regarding his career in New Zealand and where he will play.
His time at the Blues has seen Ioane drift around the backline, at times out of necessity to help his injury-afflicted team out. They have named him as a midfielder for the 2020 season, and with the departures of Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams, time in the 13 jersey remains a possibility. The arrival of Harlequins centre Joe Marchant may harm that, however.
Nevertheless, if Ioane is to become a centre first and winger second, and ultimately the All Blacks‘ first-choice No. 13, the one area of his game he has to improve unequivocally is his defence.
When the big plays with ball-in-hand were coming all throughout 2017, these questions were overlooked as the attacking upside was so great that it didn’t necessarily matter.
When those home run plays failed to materialise over the latter part of 2018 and continued into 2019, Ioane’s overall performance came under greater scrutiny and ultimately led to the All Blacks’ coaching staff moving on to George Bridge at the position.
These defensive deficiencies cannot be overlooked if Ioane is to become a top level No. 13. At outside centre, you cannot afford to have slow reactions, and more importantly, you can never get beat by doing nothing. The great defenders can recover from disadvantaged positions and complete tackles even if it means contorting their bodies in unnatural ways.
A problem area for Ioane in the front line has been defending underneath routes where he has lost sight of his man running ‘unders’ lines by ball-watching for too long.
France exposed Ioane multiple times in the June series at home in 2018 targetting this very weakness.
In the third test, first-five Anthony Belleau bounced out slightly to interest Sonny Bill Williams just enough, while French centre Remi Lamerat straightened his angle to attack ‘under’ Ioane’s eyesight from his blind spot.
Ioane was caught watching Belleau for just a split-second too long, back on his heels and is unable to recover once Lemerat ‘won’ the gap.
France breached the All Black defence, continued the movement with a pop pass off the deck and scored two phases later when halfback Baptiste Serin dived over with New Zealand still scrambling to reset on the goal line.
France found success again, running a similar play where Belleau targeted Wesley Fofana underneath Ioane.
Belleau held the ball up beautifully to allow Fofana to straighten and drift inside Ioane. From the front on angle, we see that Goodhue has Lemirat covered while Ioane’s assignment was Fofana.
Despite marking the inside man, Goodhue was able to slide off and make a last-ditch effort to tackle Fofana on his outside, grabbing his leg. Ioane hesitated to get involved in the tackle, which ended up costing seven points as the inside centre slipped free.
As an outside centre, Ioane will be tested inside and outside all the time, and getting beaten without making a tackle attempt is a cardinal sin. He must be able to recover when he loses alignment to at least make attempts instead of failing to react at all.
It was not a dominant tackle, but it was an incredibly valuable one that doesn’t require teammates to cover for his miss. It is this kind of execution that is inconsistent with Ioane.
At times, Rieko Ioane switches off and fails to react quickly, or react at all, often caught hesitating for a split second.
At Super Rugby level, this was exposed brutally against the Hurricanes in 2018 when they flooded his channel with a myriad of options and watched as the Blues’ midfield disintegrated under pressure to make reads.
Ioane didn’t follow Perofeta inward and was slow to react to Laumape’s angle, failed to then make a tackle attempt and then ran away from Julian Savea instead of staying with him to try and obstruct the final pass that puts him over for the try.
There are a combination of issues, that aren’t all Ioane’s fault, but the lack of effort on the play is concerning. At the international level, once you have been beaten the next step is to try and recover to still influence the play.
The midfield channels require constant communication and teamwork to defend. It’s hard to know if Ioane is a big communicator, but this is definitely going to be required and is a leadership skill to be developed if it is not natural for him.
Ioane as an athlete with size and speed should never be beaten on the outside break. This is one area where if placed at 13, any side should be confident that he can deal with overlaps and play jockey defence well.
Against France, he plays the situation well with hips turned out and playing off the non-committal passing to whittle down the numbers advantage, allowing inside help to come before closing in on Benjamin Fall and forcing the ball loose in the tackle.
In the All Blacks set-piece ‘whip’ defence, where the backline motions like a cracking whip, Ioane showed he can make front-on spot tackles when required shooting up to and close down the play.
He has shown an ability to take interceptions that are almost guaranteed seven points with his speed going the other way. This is another valuable part of his defensive game that can be built around. Henry Slade of England is fast-becoming one of the most dangerous centres in the game with his knack for picking off passes and opening up fast-break opportunities.
His youth is an asset right now with more experience under his belt with than 99% of players his age, which should put Ioane way ahead of the curve. He could lose that advantage though without growing as a player. Mistakes made in the past are only failures if the learnings aren’t taken from them to get better.
If he is prepared to continue to develop, he can reach the potential that he holds.
With a new All Blacks’ head coach, a fresh environment could see the best of Ioane. Whether he transitions to the midfield and becomes a world-class centre by 2023 is another question altogether and will require a professional approach of continual improvement. His longevity in New Zealand will depend on it with most wingers moving on before 27.
Everyone is aware of what Rieko Ioane can do in attack when firing, but he needs to fully develop his game to not only become a centre, but to push his way back into the All Blacks’ starting line-up. And then he can show the world what he can do the next time around.
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