Josh Ioane opens up on decision to leave Highlanders for Chiefs
Seven years after he first arrived in Dunedin as a fresh-faced teenager just months out of school, Josh Ioane says the time is right to end his spell in the Deep South.
Late last month, it was confirmed the Highlanders had made the surprise move to release Ioane from his deal with the franchise with a year still left to run on his contract in order to allow the 26-year-old to “explore other opportunities”.
Just a day later, Ioane was unveiled by the Chiefs as their first signing of the Super Rugby off-season, a move that the man in question said was facilitated after both he and the Highlanders shared mutual feelings of unfulfilled potential.
In the two years since his breakout Super Rugby campaign, which earned him his first, and only, All Blacks cap against Tonga in the lead-up to the World Cup, Ioane has struggled to rekindle the form that made him a test international.
Constant positional changes over the past two seasons have seen him line up at second five and fullback as well as first five, while competition for his preferred No 10 jersey had ramped up considerably since the arrival of Mitch Hunt from the Crusaders.
Being forced to play out of position by Aaron Mauger, Tony Brown and Clarke Dermody, combined with Hunt’s stellar performances under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium, were compounded by off-field incidents involving Ioane.
The highest-profile indiscretion, a house party which yielded complaints from neighbours surrounding Ioane’s suburban residence, earned him a single-match suspension earlier this year.
It’s no surprise, then, that Ioane is eager for a change of scenery, and, after hearing positive things from interim Chiefs head coach Clayton McMillan and Chiefs players within the Maori All Blacks camp, a move to Hamilton made sense.
“Firstly, with the Landers, I felt like a change would be good for me,” Ioane told RugbyPass from his Dunedin home ahead of the NPC launch following a month-long break due to New Zealand’s Covid-19 restrictions.
“I’ve been here eight years. I felt like getting out of Dunedin would be good for me, and then obviously I’d been in the Maori All Blacks environment and had a little bit to do with Clayton, a few of the boys and management, so I think it was a mutual thing.
“The reason for that is I think the Highlanders agreed that if I felt like I wasn’t getting the best out of myself here, then they weren’t going to hold me on my contract, so it’s all good down here and looking forward to moving up.”
Such a drastic change of packing up his belongings and relocating to Hamilton in a bid to revive his stagnant career didn’t come without due consideration.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 15, 2021
“Just getting out of Dunedin and sort of challenging myself in a new town I felt like was a good decision, and it wasn’t one that I took lightly,” Ioane said.
“I talked to a lot of people before I made that decision. It’s definitely a challenge and it’s definitely not something that you make lightly, so I definitely took the time to make the decision and felt like it was the best thing.”
The additional benefit of family nearby in Auckland wasn’t lost on Ioane, whose move to the Chiefs caught some by surprise following the brief period where his next playing destination wasn’t a matter of public knowledge.
During that time, speculation was rife that the Hurricanes, who only have youngsters Ruben Love and Aidan Morgan locked in as their playmakers for next year, and Super Rugby Pacific expansion side Moana Pasifika were the frontrunners to land Ioane’s signature.
Given Ioane’s Samoan heritage – he played for the nation’s U20 side in 2015 – and his previous playing experience for Moana Pasifika in their first-ever game against the Maori All Blacks last year, a move to the new franchise would have made sense.
However, Ioane told RugbyPass that he left his agent to field interest from across Super Rugby, and once news filtered through that the Chiefs were interested in acquiring his services, the dotted line was signed to make Hamilton his home base in 2022.
Even in spite of Damian McKenzie’s defection to Japanese club rugby next season, which will rob Ioane of the chance of teaming up with him in an all-star dual-playmaking capacity, competition will be fierce for game time in the No 10 jersey.
“Opportunity is obviously something I’m striving for up there,” Ioane told RugbyPass.
“First five is my preferred position and hopefully I do get an opportunity, but I’m aware they’ve got some key players there, Gats [Bryn Gatland] and Trasky [Kaleb Trask] and even young Rivez [Reihana], who’s quality.
“With Damian heading off, at the time, I didn’t know Damian’s exact movements, so that wasn’t really factored in, but I’m just going up there and I’ll compete and I’m looking forward to it.”
An All Blacks legend believes the battle between Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett for the national No 10 jersey could be decided by one small aspect of the game. #AllBlacks #RugbyChampionship https://t.co/SyDkb803lg
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 15, 2021
The ultimate goal is, of course, a return to the All Blacks set-up, a feat which Ioane hasn’t achieved since he was called into the national squad in a training capacity ahead of last year’s Bledisloe Cup series.
Perhaps that’s a reflection of his issues in recent times, and Ioane recognises that a focus on his performances for the Chiefs in Super Rugby Pacific, and Otago in the NPC, will help his test recall chances.
“Getting back to that level is definitely a goal for myself,” Ioane said.
“But, I know that’s thinking ahead, and, for me, I just want to play good footy for my NPC team, Otago, play some good footy for them, and then get into camp with the Chiefs and put my best foot forward.
“I think, for me, just not looking too far ahead, trying to nail what’s in front of me. First thing’s first, NPC, and then once that Chiefs opportunity to get into that environment comes, then that’s the next focus for me.
“I’ll just focus on those things first and whatever happens, happens.”
Ioane’s desire to reach his best again in Chiefs colours presents optimism for those across the franchise’s fanbase, but it may be a case of what could have been for their Highlanders counterparts.
It’s not all doom and gloom for those who also support Otago, as Ioane will remain onboard with the province until next year, but, given his exploits in 2019, it must be difficult not to imagine how much their departed first five could have achieved for them.
Nevertheless, as the franchise and city that afforded him his first taste of professional rugby, the Highlanders and Dunedin will always hold a special place in Ioane’s heart.
“I came down in 2014, lived the student life, and I was in The Zoo cheering the boys on. A couple of years later, I’m running out there, so I think I’ll definitely look back with fond memories,” he said.
Expect Anton Lienert-Brown to be back on deck for the #AllBlacks this weekend — and don’t be surprised if the midfielder is a permanent fixture in the No 13 jersey for the remainder of the Rugby Championship. #ARGvNZL
Analysis from Nick Bishop ? https://t.co/WH1mZ1y8WH
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) September 15, 2021
“When I first joined the Highlanders, I had some good people teach me a lot of things, and I learned a lot from those people and I owe those people a lot, so I look back with real fond memories.
“It was no easy decision to leave, but, in saying that, I’m excited for what’s ahead as well, but, to answer your question, I’ll look back with really fond memories.”
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