Now that he is starting against South Africa in Wellington tomorrow, the 22-year-old generally regarded as the best left wing in the world has admitted to excitement but also nerves and the latter is perhaps not surprising given the circumstances.
Ioane, who has scored a remarkable 22 tries in 24 tests, has always been a special talent due to his pace, power and anticipation, but All Blacks coaches Steve Hansen and Ian Foster both admitted this week that Ioane’s form for the Blues tailed off at the end of the Super Rugby season, and his speed, in particular wasn’t where it needed to be.
As perhaps the quickest All Black in the squad that comes as a slight surprise but there is little doubt returning to the national team environment after another disappointing year for the Blues franchise will give the impetus Ioane needs to re-discover his spark.
“Rieko’s form at Super Rugby level fell away a little bit,” Hansen said. “It started off with a hiss and a roar and fell away a wee bit so he’s pretty excited to get back on the track. He’s got high expectations, as we do of him doing his job well and playing well.”
Last weekend Ioane helped unfamiliar back three Jordie Barrett, Ben Smith and Sevu Reece prepare for the Pumas, and this time he is part of a new-look trio which includes Smith on the right wing and Beauden Barrett at fullback; perhaps the most reliable line-up the coaches could go for.
“I had a chance last week to sharpen the tools and help out where I could with the new back three,” Ioane said. “I just have to walk the talk now. I helped them last week and they did an awesome job; hopefully it’s my turn to have a crack.
“Baz [Beauden Barrett] brings a different aspect to the back three. He’s obviously good at kicking but he’s a huge threat on attack and giving him that free open space to run off whoever – the Sonnys, off my mate over here [Jack Goodhue] – it’s going to be awesome to see. I’m sure he’ll add a lot.”
Ioane, didn’t score a try in his last three tests of last year – England, Ireland and Italy – the longest he has gone without crossing the line. He is due for another given his remarkable strike rate but it won’t be easy against a team which put the All Blacks under huge pressure last year.
“They’re playing with huge confidence and rightly so,” Ioane said. “I think their teams throughout Super Rugby have been unreal and a huge step up from last year. Seeing their form against Aussie, even with some of their more experienced players [out], it’s exciting. You can’t hide from the fact that last year – same place, same team, we tripped up.”
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