It took just 23 minutes for Rieko Ioane to announce his raw talent on the world stage, scoring a ripping try against Italy for New Zealand at the end of the 2016 season after coming onto the field as a replacement.
A year later, Ioane was named as World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year.
Rieko Ioane’s fall from grace wasn’t quite as rapid – but it was quick nonetheless.
Ioane started his career with 22 international tries from 21 matches – a stat that rivals the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko.
Come the end of 2018, however, the 22-year-old hit a major speed bump. Ioane has now managed just two more tries in his six most recent games. The pacey wing has looked turgid and disinterested at times over the last 12 months and has lost his starting spot in the team to Crusader George Bridge.
Ioane’s coaches have given various explanations for his lack of form.
“He’s had a few issues with his legs and not being able to put as much speed training into his week as we would like,” New Zealand backs coach Ian Foster said earlier this week.
“It wasn’t an injury that kept him out of anything but it stopped him breaking through to a new level from a fitness side.”
Wednesday’s match against Canada saw Rieko Ioane make his first appearance for the All Blacks since his nation’s record loss to the Wallabies at the beginning of August – he missed three Tests where Hansen fielded top teams (or thereabouts), against Australia, Tonga and South Africa.
If Ioane was going to have any hope of usurping George Bridge on the left wing for the upcoming World Cup finals, then he needed to make a huge statement against Canada.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 3, 2019
Unfortunately for Ioane, the performance he put out isn’t likely to have Bridge quaking in his boots.
The Auckland back wasn’t bad – he actually played one of his better games in recent times – but it was always going to take a superlative performance to change Hansen and co’s minds about who they should be fielding in the big matches.
Ioane certainly showed some of the form of old against the hapless Canadians in difficult conditions. It may not have been raining, but the amount of moisture floating around meant it may as well have been pouring down.
One of fans’ biggest gripes concerning Ioane has been his inability to force his way into matches. Bridge, in his three appearances this year for the All Blacks, has been accruing touches all over the field. Ioane managed that later into the match against Canada, but his first touch of the ball didn’t come until the 15th minute of the game.
The deceptively agile outside back did manage to dot down for a try – his second of the year – courtesy of a midfield break to his Blues teammate Sonny Bill Williams, and he showed plenty of passion after the score that has been sorely missing from his game in recent times – at least to outside observers.
Ioane also helped set up a try for Shannon Frizell, attacking the line with vigour and getting his hands free to find the supporting loose forward.
There were also a few mistakes to the wing’s game, however. He lost the ball in contact early, tried to release a difficult offload which conceded possession to the Canadians at one point, and was also penalised for playing the ball on the ground.
Those mistakes happen to everyone, but when you’re already under the microscope, they’re errors you simply can’t afford to make.
“I think I front-loaded a lot of energy in that first half after an emotional anthem and haka,” Ioane said after the game.
“I didn’t see too much of the ball for the first 15 minutes and was trying to make something out of nothing.”
Commenting on the injuries mentioned by Foster, Ioane was confident that he’s now nearing his best.
“The best thing is when my body is 100 per cent, that’s when I’ll put up the most fight and play my best footy.
“It was a bit tough not playing in that Tonga week, that meant another week out of the game, but I’m happy with how things are tracking and my body is feeling good. A couple of more games under my belt and I’ll be into it.”
“Everyone’s fighting for that spot but it’s healthy competition.”
Again, Ioane didn’t play especially poorly, he simply needed to do more against one of the weakest sides at the World Cup.
Still, Foster was just happy to have Ioane back out on the field.
“I was pleased with Rieko tonight,” Foster said.
“He got his hands on the ball, and looked fast, strong and committed.
“He had a high work rate. It was good to see him back, but it was good for him to get a taste in the midfield and it gives us options going forward.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 2, 2019
The All Blacks will likely field their top side in a week-and-a-half’s time when they come up against Italy to ensure that the team is well-prepared for their quarterfinal. In all likelihood, Ioane won’t be in that starting side.
Perhaps Ioane is coming back into form – which is fantastic for Ioane himself, as well as the coaches, the All Blacks, New Zealand and world rugby as a whole.
Seeing Ioane at full pace, smoking or barreling through defenders, is pure rugby ecstasy.
Unfortunately for the young wing, it may simply be too late for him to push on at the current World Cup.
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