Josh Ioane’s return to action following a niggling injury lay-off has impressed some of his peers so much that he has been labelled as “a young Richie Mo’unga”.

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The 24-year-old Highlanders playmaker was ruled out for the start of Super Rugby Aotearoa with a groin injury sustained a day before his side’s opening clash with the Chiefs on June 13 in Dunedin.

It wasn’t until the Highlanders’ round seven encounter with the Chiefs that Ioane made his first showing of the competition, coming off the bench in a 33-31 win in Hamilton.

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Itoje in Super Rugby? Yes, please!

While that victory kept their faint title hopes alive, a 32-21 defeat at the hands of the Blues the following week consigned the Highlanders to a fourth-placed finish in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

However, veteran Blues hooker James Parsons believes it could have been a different story had Ioane been available for the side for the entire campaign.

Speaking to the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Parsons said he was impressed with Ioane’s showing against the Crusaders over the weekend, comparing him to Crusaders and All Blacks first-five Richie Mo’unga.

When asked whether Ioane’s halves partner Aaron Smith, who has been a standout for the Highlanders this season and bagged four trophies at the team’s awards night on Monday, could steer the Highlanders to a top-two finish if the season started all over again, Parsons disagreed.

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He said that, despite the fact that Smith is “playing the house down”, the Highlanders “haven’t been able to get across the line” in most games he’s been involved in throughout the competition.

Parsons was quick to assert that Ioane has been a point of difference since returning for Aaron Mauger’s squad, and that more games may have fallen in their favour if the one-test All Blacks pivot had been available.

“Man, he looks like a young Richie Mo’unga,” Parsons said of Ioane’s efforts in his side’s 32-22 defeat to the Crusaders on Sunday.

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“I know that Richie Mo’unga’s not old, but the way he ran at the line, his ball-carrying, his ability is silky.

“It’s through defence that I didn’t think there was space to get through and he’s passing offloads.

“Especially that one where he stepped back inside and did the offload and someone tried to fling it back and Nuggy [Smith] kicked it dead.

“I think if he came back and they’re playing like this, oh yeah, they’d be a huge threat.”

Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall, who played opposite Smith in Sunday’s match, agreed with Parsons, noting that selecting Ioane in his preferred position of first-five has paid dividends for the Highlanders.

Mauger had previously dabbled in picking Ioane at second-five and fullback earlier in the year, with new recruit Mitch Hunt often handed the No. 10 jersey instead.

A positional switch between the two playmakers has seen Ioane reinstated at No. 10 and Hunt at No. 15 in recent weeks, and Hall said the Highlanders would have reaped plenty of rewards had that dual playmaking axis been available to them all season.

“I think, just for Josh at 10 as well, especially when you’re getting lightning quick ball, like they were on the weekend, and being able to have him take it to the line and use his footwork – because he’s strong as well – he gets through those tackles and he’s got the little offloads as well, so he’s very Richie Mo’unga-esque,” Hall said.

“There were some things that I was watching yesterday [Sunday]. I think he did a step, he went through and stepped Jack [Goodhue]… I was just like ‘Man, I see that everyday at training with Richie’.

“To see it on the other foot, yeah it wasn’t very nice, but I think for him and the Highlanders moving forward, I think if he was playing at the start with Hunty at fullback, they’d definitely go guns blazing.”

Listen to the full episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below

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