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The All Black winger use-by date

By Jamie Wall
Julian Savea.

Julian Savea probably woke up to the news that he’d apparently signed a deal with Harlequins this morning with the same reaction as everyone else in the New Zealand rugby community – disbelief.

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He took to Twitter to dispel the rumour quickly, not that he needed to. The likelihood of a deal being done to cover Marland Yarde’s shock exit from the club over just a weekend is ludicrous, made even more fanciful by the fact that he recently re-signed with NZ Rugby for the next two years. However, it’s not hard to see how someone on the other side of the world could jump to this conclusion – right now Savea is unlikely to play for the All Blacks again, and will end up in England or France at some stage in the future. He’s only 27, and this time last year seemed to be a shoe-in to smash the All Black individual try-scoring record.

How a winger that hot got to be left out in the cold is a familiar tale.

I remember being at Julian Savea’s debut match for the All Blacks. It was a beautiful night at Eden Park, back in 2012 when Ireland were an international irrelevance on the All Black record.

He scored three tries that night. They were all brutally beautiful examples of how a young, powerful player stamps his name on the international stage. Savea drew comparisons to Jonah Lomu, especially after he followed it up with a blockbuster 2013 that saw him nominated for World Player of the year.

But, by the 2015 World Cup, cracks were definitely starting to show. Despite returning to his destructive best against France in the All Blacks’ quarterfinal demolition, people were already starting to look to the potential wingers that could take over from Savea in the future. His place in the pecking order became even more apparent at the business end of the 2016 Super Rugby season, when the Hurricanes unceremoniously dropped him to the bench for the entirety of the playoffs.

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Such is the life, or at least shelf-life, of an All Black winger. Despite returning to prominence somewhat during the latter part of the season, the future-proofing of the left wing had already been set in motion. The new sensation Rieko Ioane was rewarded for irresistible Super Rugby form and made a Savea-like splash in his first test start against the British & Irish Lions, scoring two tries. Add in the irresistible form of Waisake Naholo, the talent of Nehe Milner-Skudder and the rise of Matt Duffie, and Savea now finds himself in the same spot Malakai Fekitoa did a few months ago.

Despite those set-backs, Savea was poised to finally Doug Howlett’s All Black record of 49 test tries in 2017. But now – like a handful of other famous players, he’s stranded on 46. He’s currently tied for second place on the list along with All Black greats Christian Cullen and Joe Rokocoko. Only two behind them is Jeff Wilson, then comes Jonah Lomu. All of them ended their All Black careers at around the same age, 27, which Savea turned this year.

His demotion has almost scary historical precedence, both in age and tries. Cullen and Rokocoko both went on to play in Europe, with the latter still enjoying a prolific career at Racing 92. So it’s fair to say that the story that was shut down as quickly as it appeared this morning will definitely pop back up as not-so-Fake-News in due course.

There is one more footnote to all this, if the trend continues and All Black wingers keep getting replaced at this rate.

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Historically, while the All Blacks have dominated pretty much every category there is in world rugby, the top individual try scoring one is something a New Zealand player has never had a piece of in the modern era. It would surprise more than a few to know that Englishman Rory Underwood has outscored all All Blacks with 50 test tries, also the fact that Japan have two players in the top five try-scorers of all time. What makes it even more remarkable is that Daisuke Ohata (69 tries) and Hirotoki Onozawa (55) played at the same time on either wing for the Brave Blossoms.

So whenever an All Black does break Howlett’s record, they’ll still have some work to do to get to the very top of the pile. If it’s going to be Savea, it’ll require a massive change in fortune next season.

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