As Blues wing Rieko Ioane reflected on his impressive two-try performance against the Chiefs in his team’s round-one defeat at Eden Park, he was asked whether he would like to play for longer next Saturday against the Waratahs in Newcastle.
“Definitely longer,” Ioane replied.
As a top All Black, Ioane is on restricted playing minutes in Super Rugby, a policy which has been in place for nearly a decade.
He played for 56 minutes during the 37-29 defeat last Friday, with skipper and fellow All Black Patrick Tuipulotu playing 54 minutes. Both left the pitch in the middle of a sensational comeback from Warren Gatland’s side which reaped 32 second-half points.
As two of the most experienced players in Leon MacDonald’s team, both are integral to the Blues’ fortunes but neither Ioane, Tuipulotu, nor any of the other top-tier All Blacks – and there were several playing for the Chiefs including Sam Cane and Anton Lienert-Brown – have much of a say about their playing time over the first three rounds of the competition.
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Ioane played only five tests last year, including two at the World Cup in Japan – the pool match against Namibia and bronze playoff against Wales.
His recent performance didn’t reflect either rustiness or fatigue. In fact, in losing two or three kilograms over the off season, Ioane looked as focused as he ever has for the Blues as he attempts to win his All Black spot back.
His brace of tries required immense power along with the speed which normally gets him across the line – he has scored 24 tries in his 29 tests – but the demands the modern game makes on top players these days dictate New Zealand Rugby’s protocol of what it describes as “load management” following the off season.
The protocol applies to all five New Zealand teams and all followed it closely over round one. The Highlanders had a bye.
Hurricanes coach Jason Holland may have wished to have the services of All Blacks TJ Perenara and Jordie Barrett for far longer than he did during his side’s 27-0 defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town, but rules are rules, although they do allow for some flexibility, said NZ Rugby’s high performance manager Mike Anthony.
“I know some rugby fans think the competition is compromised as a result but the intention is to have the All Blacks fit at the right stage of the season and by and large we achieve that,” Anthony told the Herald.
The policy has been in place since 2010, Anthony confirmed, although then it was more of a “gentleman’s agreement”. Now it qualifies as a regulation.
“Since 2010 the All Blacks have won two World Cups and Kiwi sides have won seven out of 10 Super Rugby titles,” Anthony said.
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“Given our top players have only a 12-week off season, which isn’t long enough frankly, we have to manage their return to play very careful. We’re really mindful that the demands on our players in terms of travelling and playing in Super Rugby and then later in the international season have risen considerably.”
The convention is New Zealand’s top players will play 40, 60 and then 80 minutes over the first three rounds, although that could be managed differently – for example 60/60/60, said Anthony. They also get two weeks either to spend away from the team or to focus on their physical conditioning.
Hurricanes and All Blacks midfielder Ngani Laumape played the full 80 minutes at Newlands but didn’t attend the World Cup.
However, given he will almost certainly be in Ian Foster’s plans this year, Laumape’s workload will be monitored.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson has been more effective than most at managing his top men – he had Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock, Matt Todd, Kieran Read and Ryan Crotty to manage last year, along with Joe Moody, Scott Barrett, Jack Goodhue, Sevu Reece and George Bridge.
Robertson’s half dozen veterans have now moved on (a sabbatical in Whitelock’s case), but others have quickly risen to the challenge and none appeared to be missed during his side’s round-one victory over the Waratahs in Nelson.
Robertson also had the luxury of being able to rest Moody and Bridge in round one.
Chiefs and All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick is also on a sabbatical (playing in Japan), while new Blues No 10 Beauden Barrett is on extended leave and found himself in a Kansas City Chiefs jersey at the Super Bowl in Miami where his adopted team beat the 49ers 31-20.
All Blacks playing minutes in round one of Super Rugby:
Blues: Rieko Ioane (56 min), Patrick Tuipuloto (54).
Whilst the extra week off has been good for the squad, assistant coach Tony Brown feels like the Highlanders are late to the party following a Round 1 bye:
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