Julian Savea won't be turning the clock back to 2010 but his signing by the Hurricanes has proven to have merit
It’s important to pay credit where it’s due.
If I ran the Hurricanes, Julian Savea wouldn’t be within a bull’s roar of their Rugby League Park headquarters.
I regarded him as a spent rugby force, with a questionable temperament and work ethic, who didn’t deserve a contract in this country. I said that loud and often and didn’t feel too bad about it.
I’m still not one hundred percent sold on this version of Savea and would argue his career effectively finished at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but you also have to accept the facts.
At 30, Savea is actually doing a serviceable job for the Hurricanes and that needs to be acknowledged – particularly given his circumstances.
Not everyone is Ma’a Nonu. Not every player is blessed with the unshakeable belief that they can not only play better than everyone else, but that they know better too.
Nonu had that and, boy, did it serve him well. No matter what any teammate or coach or fan or owner and media type thought of the midfield back, he didn’t care.
That’s not to say he wasn’t conscious of the slights, just that they didn’t wound him. Nonu was able to use it all as motivation and then revel in proving people wrong.
Savea is a far more sensitive chap. He might have come through the same school and club as Nonu, then progressed through the Wellington and Hurricanes’ ranks as well, but they are very different men.
I first watched Savea live, in a pre-season game between Wellington and Canterbury at Linwood in 2010.
He was lithe and elusive back then. There was no need to try and steamroll tacklers, because his feet were so fast and his pace too much for most defenders.
Frankly, Savea appeared as if he could go the length of the field any time he wanted and there wasn’t a Canterbury player capable of doing anything to stop him. He was absolutely breathtaking.
Within a year, though, his confidence was shot. He couldn’t catch a cold, let alone beat anyone one-on-one, and you wondered where that other player had gone.
We’ve seen these periods ever since, these times when Savea has made rugby look like the most difficult thing in the world. Those occasions where he has looked utterly confused about what he was meant to be doing.
Nonu, meanwhile, was made for French club rugby. Physically it was a great fit for him, but it was the culture of the footy there that suited him most.
He could clock in and clock out and leave his work behind him.
In some ways Nonu was ahead of his time in New Zealand. Far from the all-for-one and one-for-all type scenario we still tend to have here, French rugby afforded Nonu the opportunity to be a true professional. To treat the game as a job and do his work accordingly.
But France was never going to work for Savea.
He’s not built to be a commodity or an owner’s play thing, he needs a collegial environment where he can shed his natural shyness and be the person he’d like to be.
Savea will never be that boy who no-one could lay a hand on, back in 2010. His days of skittling defenders, as he so memorably did against France in 2015, are over.
But he can still do a job on the park for the Hurricanes and – better than that – he can be a true leader and example off it.
Hurricanes hooker Asafo Aumua talked of Savea’s value this week and of the belief he has built in other Pasifika players. It was powerful stuff and something that’s potentially overlooked by those of us on the outside.
Savea is more than a rugby player and a teammate. He is an icon and an inspiration and you can see how valuable that is within a franchise environment.
I wouldn’t have re-signed Savea to the Hurricanes but – from his teammates’ point of view – it’s probably just as well that someone did.
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