'He's definitely playing well enough': Has Josh Ioane played himself back into the All Blacks?
However, the two-test All Blacks rake believes Ioane has been “playing well enough” to “warrant selection” in the next national squad.
Ioane has been inspired form for the Highlander since returning to the Dunedin-based franchise’s match day squad after being stood down from the team for their shock win over the Crusaders earlier this month due to disciplinary reasons.
The 25-year-old was then named on the bench for the following week’s match against the Chiefs in Dunedin, where he turned heads with a compelling cameo appearance from fullback.
In just 28 minutes, Ioane – who normally plays at first-five – scored a try, made a clean break, ran for 88 metres, beat four defenders, threw an offload and scored a further five points off the boot.
That performance earned him a starting role in the No 15 jersey for last weekend’s clash against the Blues, a match the Highlanders won 35-29.
Under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium, Ioane impressed again as he scored another try and directed play well. He also defending courageously, pulling off one of two try-saving tackles on Blues wing Caleb Clarke in the second half.
Prior to his one-match suspension, the one-test All Black had been threatening while playing at fullback against the Hurricanes, which has led some to beg the question whether he has reignited his seemingly stagnant test career.
Ioane hasn’t played for the All Blacks since his debut against Tonga in Hamilton in September 2019, but Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Ioane’s inclusion in the national set-up will be dependant on how Foster configures his squad.
Parsons said that, with Chiefs star Damian McKenzie also proving his worth as a first-five/fullback option, and with Beauden Barrett set to return from his Japanese sabbatical in the coming months, Foster has many available options to fill a 10-15 role.
“It’ll be depending on the makeup of what they want to go with, like how many first-five/fullback options they carry,” Parsons said of whether Ioane has played himself back into the All Blacks squad.
“Do they see Damian as a genuine first-five? If so, then maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer for that, but he’s definitely playing well enough to warrant selection, absolutely he is, but so are the other guys.”
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Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall added that Ioane’s shift to fullback has allowed his attacking traits to fully flourish, which Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has previously attributed as the reason behind his star man’s positional switch.
Hall pointed to Ioane’s involvement in the lead-up to Michael Collins’ match-sealing try against the Blues as an example of what the fullback can offer while playing in the No 15 jersey.
“I actually thought, in that last try with Michael Collins, his animation out the back for Michael Collins to get through that line was due to [Jona] Nareki and Ioane’s ability to be animated out the back,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“I like that set-up that they have there at the moment and it just gives Josh a little bit more freedom with his running game, which is so great.
“It’s his biggest strength and, at fullback, you’re seeing it at the forefront with him with the last couple of performances that he’s had.”
Whether Foster, who was vocal about having a playmaker at fullback during his maiden season in charge of the All Blacks, decides to choose Ioane to fill that role remains to be seen, but Parsons echoed Hall’s sentiments about Ioane’s form from the back.
“I think he’s playing good footy, he’s injected himself really well off the bench the week before, he played well the other night, he looks comfortable there,” Parsons said.
“He’s another player when he’s got time and ability to see and present himself in the game, he looks silky, he glides, he’s got a good kicking game.
“He just looks like a man that’s focused on playing well and he’s just continuing on that form.”
Ioane and the Highlanders will have the bye this week before they take on the Hurricanes in Wellington next Friday in their last match of the Super Rugby Aotearoa regular season as they aim to keep their faint final hopes alive.
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