'As sharp as I've seen him': Ian Foster on Rieko Ioane
The All Blacks team for the opening Bledisloe Cup match against the Wallabies sees the return of Rieko Ioane on the left wing, after playing against Tonga and Fiji at centre in the first two tests of the season.
In the last test against Fiji, Ioane was used on the right wing off the bench and began to show flashes of what made him a breakout star in 2017 when he scored 10 test tries in his first international season.
Head coach Ian Foster said an injury to Will Jordan in that last test opened the door for Ioane to be used as a wing again, after ‘really strong’ form at 13 and his bench cameo on the wing.
“Will Jordan came off in the third test with a hamstring. He’s been able to train fully this week but I really didn’t want to test that 100 per cent,” he said.
“I think Rieko’s form at both centre and wing in July has been really strong.”
He commented that he thought Ioane was ‘as sharp’ as he has ever seen, and mentioned that the Ioane that lost his starting role in 2019 before the Rugby World Cup was battling a calf injury.
“Yes I think so,” Foster said when asked if he’s as good a player as four years ago, “He’s as sharp as I’ve seen him.
“He had a calf injury that really impacted him in 2019, it slowed him down a little bit. I think he came back in 2020 and now this year, as sharp as I’ve seen.
“And also confident, he’s getting a grip around 13, and again I’ve said this before, he’s grown quite a bit at 13. The fact is that he’s a centre/wing, I guess the debate will continue, but we are pretty happy with him at both.”
Anton Lienert-Brown was immediately thrust back into 13 on return from injury in the last test against Fiji, displacing Ioane from the midfield.
Despite not being named in his preferred centre position, Ioane was thrilled to be back in the starting side and said he has been working on his connection with the Chiefs centre.
“It’s always a huge buzz when you are named to start, no different this time round,” Ioane said.
“Definitely looking forward to the challenge. I came off the bench against Fiji on the wing, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Ioane believes his time at 13 will help his play on the wing, having learned from the inside what centres want from their wings.
“It’s actually not too big of an adjustment, I was fairly comfortable in the position [wing] before I switched over. So there are some things I picked up at 13 that I know that I want my wings to do.
“I know Alby [Lienert-Brown] will be wanting me to do the same thing.
“It’s just about having a good connection with him, if you see any good centre-wing pairing, they always have a good connection. We’ve been building that this week, no different today and tomorrow with that prep.
Ioane started two tests in 2020, both against Australia, but neither resulted in a win. He got his first chance at centre in a 16-all draw in Wellington, while he was on the left wing for the Wallabies’ 24-22 win in Brisbane.
He was not in the 23-man side that played the Wallabies at Eden Park last year, which means it’s been a long time between tests at his home ground for the Auckland-born product.
“I can’t even remember the last time I played at Eden Park for the All Blacks. I haven’t played there in awhile, so yeah definitely looking forward to the challenge.”
Despite many games for the Blues, Ioane has only played on the turf twice for the All Blacks.
His first test start came there against the British & Irish Lions in 2017 where he scored two tries, and his last appearance was in 2018 during the France series where he also scored a double.
Ioane will be hoping to continue that trend with two more on Saturday, having scored eight of his test tries from nine appearances against Australia.
“I’ve made some special memories on that field, so hopefully can do the same.”
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