Thirty two years ago, a young openside flanker called Michael Jones lit up the 1987 Rugby World Cup for the All Blacks by playing a game no one had seen before from a forward.
The then 22-year-old had excellent anticipation, electric pace, brilliant handling skills and a set of shoulders which regularly performed the equivalent of firmly shutting a door on an opposition player. Jones, who later became known as the Iceman, played with balance and grace but he was occasionally brutal too.
He could apparently do it all and quickly became a favourite for kids everywhere. Everyone wanted to be like Michael Jones. Now it seems they all want to be like Ardie Savea, an All Black who received one of the loudest cheers from the crowd bathing in the afternoon sunshine at Waikato Stadium before the recent test against Tonga.
And no wonder. Wallabies coach Michael Cheika recently referred to Savea as a “hybrid” type of loose forward who could play any of the three back-row positions, but the 25-year-old showed in the 92-7 romp against the All Blacks’ South Pacific neighbours that he’s that and a little more.
Savea is a once-in-a-generation type player who has the pace and rugby nous to play in the midfield or on the wing, a player even his All Black teammates look at and shake their heads at what he’s doing on a pitch. Like Jones, Savea can do it all too, and he’s about to do it in front of millions on the biggest stage.
Fellow loose forward Matt Todd, who started with Savea in Hamilton on Saturday, described him as a “special athlete”. Beauden Barrett called him one of the most influential players the All Blacks have.
There are few guarantees for the All Blacks in Japan at this World Cup, but what is a near sure thing is that Savea will light up the tournament like few others and he’s likely to win a multitude of new fans in the process.
“It’s a lot better playing alongside him than against him, that’s for sure,” Todd said. “He can create things on a footy field and do stuff than no one else really can.
“He can slot in anywhere. He’s got that speed at the back of the scrum. His ball-carrying – he refuses to go down so he gets you over the gain line. He creates momentum for you and obviously he’s great at the No 7 role when fetching and creating turnovers. He impacts the game in so many ways.
“He’s obviously a powerful man, and he’s never tackled – he wriggles and fights and finds a way to keep going. He runs great lines as well and puts himself in great positions. He’s got that speed as well. If he gets a half gap he’s gone.”
For Barrett, who has played alongside him for many years at the Hurricanes, Savea’s greatest strength is his work rate.
“His work rate is immense,” Barrett said. “The influence he has on a rugby game when it comes to the breakdown is big and then you see him run around wings on the edges. He’s probably our most influential player in terms of workrate that we have at the moment.”
Formerly an impact player for the All Blacks, Savea’s big break coincided with Sam Cane’s neck injury last year. Before then Savea had never started more than two tests in row.
Now he’s started his last eight as Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors opt for a Savea, Sam Cane, Kieran Read loose forward triumvirate which is all about helping to provide a high-impact, up-tempo game. A game, in other words, perfectly suited to Savea.
“We’ve known for years how good he is,” Barrett added. “I’ve been fortunate to see that as a teammate at the Canes. It’s great that he’s starting and we’ve been able to see him for a full 80 minutes and not 30 minutes off the bench here and there. If that’s the combination going forward then that’s great for us.”
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