The uncapped first-five has been re-called into the national side as Richie Mo’unga continues to nurse a shoulder injury sustained in the All Blacks’ 36-0 thrashing of the Wallabies in Auckland last month.
24-year-old Ioane was included in the All Blacks’ 39-man Rugby Championship squad in July, but was cut from the 34-man side for the Bledisloe Cup series.
He stayed with the squad as a train-on player for their two-match series against Australia, but failed to make the 31-man World Cup team named last week.
During his time as part of the Rugby Championship side, Ioane was named on the bench for the tournament opener in what would have been his test debut against Argentina in Buenos Aires.
However, he didn’t make it onto the field during his side’s scratchy 20-16 victory over the Pumas, while fellow rookies Sevu Reece, Braydon Ennor, Luke Jacobson and Atu Moli all went on to make their first test appearances.
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen cited that the coaching staff were wary about the harming Ioane’s development had the side suffered their first-ever loss at the hands of Argentina.
“It wouldn’t have been fair to put him out – we lose the test match and everyone starts pointing fingers at a young kid because he’s steering the ship,” he said in the wake of the clash.
“We didn’t want that to happen so we didn’t put him on. When the time comes I’m sure from what we’ve seen last week and what we’ll see this week, eventually he’ll get a game.”
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This week’s match against Tonga – the world’s 15th-ranked side – at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton on Saturday afternoon presents itself as a prime opportunity for Ioane to finally get a game in the black jersey.
Hansen has previously indicated that he would play a full-strength side against the ‘Ikale Tahi in their last match before their World Cup campaign, which begins against the Springboks in Yokohama on September 21.
Had Mo’unga been injury-free, that almost certainly would have seen him and Beauden Barrett continue their dual-playmaking axis from first-five and fullback, which has been used throughout the All Blacks’ last three tests.
With Mo’unga now out the picture, though, it seem likely that Ioane will step straight into the starting No. 10 role.
It would make sense given that would allow Barrett to continue to work in a dual-playmaking role with his first-five, even if that isn’t Mo’unga.
In doing so, it would provide good preparation for the World Cup, where the 10-15 playmaking combo is expected to be a key component of the All Blacks’ game plan.
Alternatively, Hansen could revert back to deploying Barrett in his natural position of first-five for the Tonga test, which would open the door for either veteran fullback Ben Smith or youngster Jordie Barrett to reclaim the No. 15 jersey.
Smith, who was dropped from the Bledisloe Cup decider following a string of underwhelming performances, hasn’t featured at fullback at test level yet this year, and has instead been played on the right wing.
Barrett, meanwhile, has played two tests this year, starting at No. 15 against Argentina, and then came off the bench as Mo’unga’s replacement against Australia at Eden Park, where he swapped with brother Beauden to close the game out at fullback.
Starting either one of Smith or Barrett would probably result in Ioane being named on the bench, but with this fixture expected to be a blowout in favour of the All Blacks.
Therefore, it’s highly likely the Highlanders star will get at least some game time, as the pressures that restricted him from taking to the field in Argentina test won’t be evident against Tonga.
In saying that, aside from suggesting that he will field his strongest possible side, no further indication has been given by Hansen in terms of who he plans to start at first-five this weekend.
The All Blacks side to face Tonga will be named on Thursday morning.
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