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'Can't escape the south': Josh Ioane heading back to where it all began

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Alan Lee/Photosport)

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Before Josh Ioane’s first season of Super Rugby away from the Highlanders even kicks off, the former All Black is heading back to New Zealand’s deep south with the Chiefs in preparation for their upcoming campaign.

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Ioane parted ways with the Highlanders at the end of last season, despite having a year left to run on his contract, and has linked up with the Chiefs for the 2022 season where he will aim to take ownership of a No 10 jersey that’s already well contested by the likes of Bryn Gatland and Kaleb Trask.

With Covid-19 continuing to cause issues around the country, however, the six New Zealand Super Rugby sides will relocate to Queenstown for the opening three weeks of the Super Rugby Pacific season. All games over those opening rounds will take place either at Wakatipu Rugby Club in Queenstown or the Highlanders’ home stadium, Forsyth Barr in Dunedin. With the Chiefs set to play the Highlanders in the opening round of the competition, Ioane was already set to quickly face off with his old squad after defecting north, and now he’ll also be doing so inside their territory.

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“Can’t escape the South eh?” Ioane joked on Friday with media after the Chiefs’ first pre-season hit-out of the year.

“Yeah it does feel a bit weird. At least we still get to play. We’ve been together [as a squad] for five weeks and we talked about how we’re going to have every hour of every day to talk about footy but we’ve got two days now to spend with our families and on Monday [head] down to Queenstown.”

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Ioane, originally hailing from Auckland, debuted for Otago during the 2017 provincial season and was quickly signed by the Highlanders. Two years later, the former Samoa Under 20s representative earned his test debut for the All Blacks against Tonga ahead of the Rugby World Cup but was not required for the trip to Japan. After two further seasons with the Highlanders, Ioane has opted for a change of scenery by shifting to Hamilton – not that he’ll spend much of the formative part of the season in the Waikato.

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Regardless, he’s already making a good fist of his stint with the Chiefs, contributing 17 points in the victory over Moana Pasifika, including one well-taken try and six successful conversions. The 26-year-old acknowledged that despite having a month of pre-season under their belt, both teams were developing combinations on the field for the first time in a competitive match.

“There was definitely some new combinations out there, both teams were trying to find their feet,” he said.

As a whole, it was a solid contribution off the bench for Ioane and while it won’t have guaranteed him a starting berth in the first five-eighth role, it will have given head coach Clayton McMillan pause for thought.

McMillan was characteristically understated when quizzed on Ioane’s performance after the match: “He kicked his goals and he got a few opportunities to run with the ball. He was defensively sound. He made a really good fist of it.”

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The man himself isn’t taking anything for granted and was quick to lay plaudits on the efforts of his rivals for the No 10 jersey with the Chiefs.

“I can tell you it’s been a competitive pre-season,” said Ioane. “I feel like the other boys at first five have definitely come in all cylinders firing so it’s definitely making me push as well. I think we’re all pushing each other so I think it’s good competition.”

The one-test All Black also downplayed any suggestions of pressure.

“I don’t feel like there’s any pressure. All I can do is just put my best foot forward. If it’s someone else [who wears No 10] then they deserve it but if it’s me then it’s me. I don’t think there’s any pressure, it’s just about putting my best foot forward.”

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While Kaleb Trask remains on ice after picking up a minor injury during an inter-squad pre-season skirmish, Bryn Gatland was tasked with the playmaking duties in the opening half of the 90-minute match. While the scoring didn’t open up until Ioane joined the fray, Gatland was poised in the flyhalf role and certainly won’t have harmed his chances of selection either.

Whoever was wearing the No 10 jersey throughout the match, Moana Pasifika was quick to rush out of the blocks and put pressure on the first receiver.

“It was not bad. They’re a physical team, big boys, and they got a few phases together at the end there and we were defending for long phases,” Ioane said during the post-game coverage. “I think the work-on there is just not allowing them to have the ball so much with our discipline.”

McMillan echoed those sentiments and will now work with his assistant coaches to determine who will travel with the squad down to Queenstown over the weekend.

Next weekend the Chiefs will take on the Blues with the head coach indicating a more traditional 23-man squad (or something similar) would be called upon, instead of the 34 players that were utilised against Moana Pasifika, with an eye to preparing the team for the opening game of their season against the Highlanders on February 18.

“Probably wouldn’t look too far ahead, just next week’s game,” McMillan said aftert the match. “Blues are gonna be tough. We’ve assembled a great squad and I guess everybody will move a little bit closer next week to something resembling a match-day 23. Another week, you’ll find out.”

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