Rarely has a player burst onto the international scene in the fashion that 20-year-old Rieko Ioane did in 2017 for the All Blacks.
It seemed that he was destined to break all sorts of records after scoring 10 test tries in his first full season as an All Black before his 21st birthday. It was a year where Ioane swept all before him, starting with a sensational test match against the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park where he scored two tries.
Having abruptly replaced Julian Savea, the star of the 2015 Rugby World Cup and holder of 46 test tries himself, Ioane stunned the rugby world by burning past England fullback Elliot Daly with glorious ease to seal a 30-15 win over the Lions in the first test after a botched box kick by Liam Williams.
The Blues wing then continued to rack up try after try with four against the Wallabies and two more against Springboks. On the end of year tour, Ioane completed his whirlwind year with a double at Cardiff against Wales.
The hyperbole began to reach astronomic levels with Ioane’s clear potential for all to see. If he could continue this vein of form, he would end up as perhaps the All Blacks greatest ever finisher.
Former All Black Doug Howlett, scorer of 49 test tries and holder of New Zealand’s try-scoring record, went as far to say Ioane was the ‘perfect blend of Cullen, Lomu, and Umaga’, three of the most dangerous attacking players in modern rugby history.
“He has elements of all great All Black wingers,” Howlett said on BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly Podcast.
“He can move like Christian Cullen, he has the strength of a Jonah [Lomu], and he can pass and play the ball like a Tana Umaga.
Kiwi scribe Mark Reason also joined in the fervour, lavishing Ioane with unrestrained predictions of future greatness, adding that Ioane possessed a beauty that Lomu did not.
“Jonah Lomu was brutal. He destroyed what was in front of him. His legs moved like pistons. But Ioane flows over the ground like the most beautiful racehorse,” he wrote for Stuff.co.nz.
“Already it is one of the great sights of modern sport. Already Ioane is rugby’s player of the year, and for my money, he is likely to be the player of this decade.”
Reason took exception to World Rugby’s judges awarding Beauden Barrett his second consecutive Player of the Year award, claiming they ‘made fools of themselves’ for not giving it to Ioane.
“Yes, I know, the judges gave the player of the year award to Beauden Barrett and thereby made fools of themselves and World Rugby.”
Paul Williams of Rugby World magazine, writing after his double against Wales that “at just 20 years of age, it was the boy who was the man amongst boys.”
“Ioane won the 2017 Breakthrough Player of the Year and he should arguably have won the senior award too,” he wrote in agreeance with Reason.
Andy Bull of The Guardian surmised that Ioane could become more successful than any of the previous 46 All Blacks out of the Ponsonby Rugby Club, which included Inga Tuigamala, Joe Stanley and Carlos Spencer.
“The way Ioane is shaping up he could become more successful than any of them,” he wrote.
“Wingers tend to burn bright and fast, especially in New Zealand, where a lot have come and gone. The All Blacks have used 22 in the last decade alone, and 13 of them scored at least 10 tries for the team. But Ioane, only 20, looks as if he will be a fixture there for a long while yet.”
Yet despite the dizzying level of expectation thrust upon the young winger, none of it seemed illogical at the time.
The 2018 season was just as fruitful for Ioane as he went five straight tests with at least a brace, including a hat-trick against France in Dunedin where he spent the last half hour tormenting the visitors at outside centre.
He finished 2018 with 22 test tries in just 24 matches, on pace to shatter Doug Howlett’s try-scoring record for New Zealand and become the first All Black to score 50 of them.
It seemed as though Ioane would continue racking up tries and have a bountiful time in Japan aiding the All Blacks on the quest for a third straight World Cup in 2019 however Ioane would become the latest winger to ‘burn bright and fast’, as Andy Bull of The Guardian had predicted he would avoid becoming.
History will show Ioane as an afterthought for the All Blacks at the 2019 World Cup, after losing his spot in the starting team to George Bridge during The Rugby Championship. An off-night against South Africa saw Ioane shut down by Cheslin Kolbe in a 16-all draw, while Ioane was a casualty along with Ben Smith after a record loss in Perth to the Wallabies.
He managed a start in a pool game against Canada but missed the key games of the tournament before surfacing against Wales in the third fourth playoff.
2020 was a transition year for Ioane as he pushed for a place in the All Blacks midfield. Having received the green light to start at 13 in the opening test of the year, Ioane botched a sure try, knocking on the ball while putting it down and wasn’t given another chance in the 13 jersey.
His Blues teammate Caleb Clarke went on to flourish in the left wing position, becoming a burgeoning star in his own right with a destructive performance against the Wallabies at Eden Park, where Ioane had done the same to the Lions three years earlier.
As time goes by, 2017 looks more and more like a flash in the pan season in the rearview mirror. Ioane went from ‘undroppable’ to an afterthought in the space of 12 months, and his case for player of the decade is flimsy at best.
He doesn’t have a solid lock on any position in the All Blacks backline and perhaps in pursuing centre has foregone the chance to play more tests for the All Blacks in the long run.
However at just 23-years-old Ioane has what others didn’t when they fell out of favour with selectors – time on his side. He will turn 24-years-old in 2021 having already experienced the highs and lows of international rugby.
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