'He's fast now': The reason behind Rieko Ioane's All Blacks re-birth
At that point in his career, the then-19-year-old had only two provincial campaigns with Auckland, a one-off Super Rugby spell with the Blues and two World Sevens Series circuits, including an Olympics campaign, with the All Blacks Sevens under his belt.
Young, incredibly quick and a renowned try-scoring machine, it was clear to see the youngster’s potential was vast but still largely untapped as an international prospect after only a couple of cameo appearances against Italy and France in Europe.
It wasn’t until midway through the following year where he fully introduced himself as a standout in the black jersey in the opening test against the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park.
His two-try showing backed up a formidable outing against the same opponents at the same venue while playing for the Blues a few weeks beforehand, and it proved Ioane as a very capable player against some of the world’s elite players.
That form was replicated throughout the course of 2017 and 2018, and was reflected by his strong strike rate of 22 tries in his first 24 tests.
That was enough to crown him 2017 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year and earned him back-to-back World Rugby Player of the Year nominations in 2017 and 2018.
Then, however, the 2019 international season arrived, and with it came a downward spiral in Ioane’s All Blacks form.
The seemingly impenetrable confidence with which Ioane played at in the dawn of career looked to be a thing of the past two years ago, and his slump in form couldn’t have come at a worse time given it coincided with a World Cup year.
As a result, Ioane made just five test appearances that season as he was one of a few players dropped from Sir Steve Hansen’s first-choice team following the All Blacks’ record-breaking defeat at the hands of the Wallabies in Perth.
His demotion came after he struggled to impress on the wing against the Springboks in Wellington in the match beforehand, and his fall down the pecking order was reflected by his three World Cup outings against Canada, Namibia and Wales in the bronze final.
A positional shift from the wing to the midfield at the Blues last year helped Ioane rekindle some of the form he has become renowned for, but some patchy displays for the All Blacks in 2020 did little to convince he was back at his pre-2019 best.
“You assume Argentina and South Africa will provide more difficult Rugby Championship assignments.”
– Hamish Bidwell on the All Blacks after they completed a 3-0 sweep of the Wallabies. https://t.co/lFJczL0Eyy
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 6, 2021
That has changed this year, though, as the 24-year-old, now a veteran of 40 tests, has taken international rugby by storm so far in 2021.
Thriving both in the midfield and on the wing, Ioane looks at his scintillating best, playing with full confidence and speed and power and attacking guile that leaves opposition defences on edge before they even take to the field.
Tonga, Fiji and the Wallabies have all felt the wrath of Ioane’s exploits this season, but the speedster reached new heights this year when the All Blacks secured a Bledisloe Cup clean sweep with a 38-21 victory over the Wallabies in Perth over the weekend.
Named to start on the left wing, Ioane played like a demon at Optus Stadium, the same venue where his fate in 2019 was sealed, with his efforts on either side of the ball best exemplified by two separate plays.
The first of which came in the first half, when he went on a searing run up through the middle of the park while returning the ball from halfway following a clearing kick made by the Wallabies from well inside their own territory.
The vision, pace and acceleration that Ioane showed to tear through the heart of the Australian defence was enough to make your jaw drop, and he could well have scored from that single piece of play had it not been for James Slipper’s desperate ankle tap.
Even more impressive, though, was the backing he had of himself to take the Wallabies on and put the All Blacks in a dangerous attacking position.
Then, in the second half, as the Wallabies threatened to score on a counter-attack instigated by Semu Kerevi and supported by Andrew Kellaway, Ioane was on hand to mow down Tom Banks and drag him into touch with the tryline begging.
Forced to defend a two-on-one situation, Ioane’s good defensive read enabled him to bounce from Kellaway to Banks, who had a decent head start on the All Black on his own 10 metre line, only to be hauled down at the opposite 22 metre mark.
It was a sensational burst of speed from Ioane that showed not only how vital his out-and-out pace is for the All Blacks, but it illustrated his defensive maturity that has perhaps grown thanks to his prolonged spells at centre.
Former All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams says he is “baffled” that veteran Wallabies playmaker Quade Cooper wasn’t selected for Sunday’s Bledisloe Cup clash in Perth. #AllBlacks #Wallabies #BledisloeCup #RugbyChampionship #AUSvNZL https://t.co/MUNklnutxU
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 6, 2021
Those two moments encapsulated what was a firepower performance from Ioane, with only his brother Akira able to claim a better outing in Western Australia on Sunday.
The conclusion from that individual display is that the Rieko Ioane we are seeing this season is a vastly-improved player than the one on show in 2019, which is the player we had become accustomed to in recent seasons.
It’s possible that might come as a surprise to some, the naysayers who doubted Ioane’s rise back to the top, but it hasn’t been a shock to All Blacks head coach Ian Foster, who offered some insight behind his star man’s renaissance after the weekend’s test.
“It’s easy to forget in 2019 that he had a calf injury that kept him out of the early part of the international, and by the time he was coming right, it was right at the end of the World Cup,” Foster said.
“He just wasn’t fast in 2019. He’s fast now. He’s got his speed back. He’s got that little swagger that he’s pretty proud of. He’s at his best when he dances around, and he’s feeling good, he’s feeling comfortable in the environment.
“I think, too, he’s embracing a little bit more of a leadership role. He’s embracing the dual task of wing and centre. He’s just getting frustrated there’s always a wing on the other side that’s scoring the tries,” he joked, making reference to Will Jordan.
Given the All Blacks aren’t even halfway through their test schedule for 2021, it may only be a matter of time before Ioane starts bagging his fair share of tries again as he continues to reap the rewards of his All Blacks re-birth.
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