OPINION: It’s hard to believe that Akira Ioane is only 23-year olds.
Ioane is the sole uncapped international named in the All Blacks foundation squad to prepare for the year ahead of international rugby, with 2019’s Rugby World Cup the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
It’s not the first time Ioane has been involved with the All Blacks, however.
In 2017, a 34-man training squad was named in preparation of that year’s Rugby Championship (bereft of any Crusaders, who were in South Africa for the Super Rugby final). Atu Moli, Tom Franklin and Richard Buckman, alongside Ioane, were the only uncapped members of the squad – they are all yet to play a test match for New Zealand.
Ioane was initially left out of the All Blacks squad to travel to the Northern Hemisphere at the end of 2017 but eventually joined up with the team after an injury to Jerome Kaino. It was then that he made his biggest step towards being an international rugby player, running out for the All Blacks in their midweek fixture with a French XV.
Ioane replaced Liam Squire after 50 minutes and quickly showed the world the kind of skills and power he could bring to international rugby, breaking tackles and making a galloping run up the field. This 30-minute cameo was Ioane’s first and only taste of international football with the All Blacks to date.
Prior to last year’s Rugby Championship, Ioane was once more included in a wider All Blacks training squad (Crusaders players were again absent). Every player who attended that camp, Ioane aside, has now earned a test cap for the All Blacks.
When the All Blacks selected a 51-man squad for their 2018 end of year tour, Ioane was arguably the biggest omission. Of the wider squad, 19 players were included for a development match with Japan and were going to return home after the match’s completion.
All Blacks selector Grant Fox was quick to downplay Ioane’s absence.
“He’s getting better at the areas he’s been asked to improve at, and I’m not going to drill down into those,” Fox said. “If he comes with us, he’s not necessarily going to get a lot of game time.
“He knows what he needs to do and we think he’s better off with the New Zealand Maori team and playing, being a number one for them, playing footy, and working on the areas that he needs to work on.”
Fox’s comment suggested that perhaps Ioane wasn’t as far out of the picture as some suspected – the All Blacks coaches just wanted to give him more time on the field than what he would receive with the main squad.
Still, it would’ve been hard for Ioane to see so many players earn caps ahead of him, including loose forwards Gareth Evans, Dillon Hunt and Dalton Papalii, when he was the one that had spent so much time with the All Blacks over the preceding few years.
Ioane’s selection in the latest squad will be reassuring for the monstrous loose-forward, a player who is widely viewed as the ideal specimen to replace current captain Kieran Read once he leaves New Zealand’s shores at the end of the year.
It’s Ioane’s continued selection in training squads but his continued omission from playing squads, however, that indicates there are still plenty of development points for the young Aucklander.
Ask any rugby fan on the street and they’ll have their own opinion: Ioane doesn’t work hard enough, he spends too much time in the open field and not enough time in the rucks, he’s a loose cannon – but it’s all just conjecture, really.
There have certainly been question marks over Ioane’s work rate and temper in the last few years, but there have been other All Blacks who have also had the same areas of their game questioned and they’ve still gone on to forge great careers.
The fact of the matter is the wider rugby public will never truly know what is the sticking point that gets a player into (or keeps a player out of) an All Blacks squad.
Regardless, for a player of only 23, the fact that Ioane is even being considered as a long-term replacement for arguably the world’s best number 8 says a lot about the raw potential that he has.
Ioane seems to have been a project player for the All Blacks for many a season, almost since he burst onto the scene at the 2014 Wellington Sevens as an 18-year old and was touted as the next Jonah Lomu. Although he’s been included in the 41-man foundation squad, his inclusion in the team that travels to Japan for the World Cup seems improbable, simply based on the other loose forwards the All Blacks have at their disposal.
When a host of players leave at the end of the year upon the World Cup’s completion, however, we may finally see whether Ioane has done enough to convince the selectors that he’s now ready for the big leagues.
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