This week All Blacks winger Julian Savea announced his New Zealand career is all but over after signing with Toulon. The hometown product has achieved it all and will leave as a local legend. It’s been a magic ride to the top from an underdog school, fulfilling a dream that looked possible from a young age.
At barely 15 years old he made his 1st XV debut in Year 10 and quickly became a school hero as the underdog Rongotai College had uncovered the rugby equivalent of Lebron James. He was a special athlete who measured at 1.90 and 104kg in his last years of high school. With sprinter’s speed, power and most of all rugby nous, Savea was as Steve Hansen described – ‘unstoppable’.
By Year 11 whispers began about this special kid from Rongotai. Every team that played them had a plan to ‘get Julian’. Many tried and many failed.
On a perfect winter’s afternoon in 2007, Rongotai played rival St Pats Silverstream at home in the annual traditional, one that has been historically dominated by Silverstream. In 60 attempts Rongotai has only notched 18 victories.
Savea, now in Year 12 and his third year of 1st XV, scored three first-half tries all from past halfway on the way to a 28-11 win. It was a sight to behold. With every Savea touch, the crowd rose in anticipation of seeing something improbable, each time left with growing disbelief at what they just saw. The win was by the largest margin since 1969 and is still the biggest margin against Silverstream in school history.
He made the New Zealand schoolboys that year as a winger and returned for his final year of schooling the next, already in the Hurricanes academy. He was selected for the New Zealand Sevens team while still a schoolboy.
Whilst it seems the path was laid out, there were bumps to overcome. He was propelled through to each level so young, and each time had to adjust. He played club rugby just like everyone else, but eventually, the prodigious talent found his way.
A breakout 2010 Junior World Cup in Argentina for New Zealand put the world on notice that his arrival was imminent. He picked up the IRB Junior Player of the Year award and comparisons were made to the late great Jonah Lomu. He debuted for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby in 2011 but had a quiet time in a developing Hurricanes team.
2012 saw the arrival of ‘The Bus’ as a damaging force in Super Rugby as he plowed his way through opposition backs. He began bumping off current All Blacks like schoolboys. His try against the Crusaders where he crushed Israel Dagg like a hydraulic press machine was mesmerizing. An All Blacks debut beckoned, where he scored three tries against Ireland and thus begun the Savea-era in the famous 11 jersey.
His most memorable match will probably be the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against France, where he scored three barnstorming tries in a record win. Savea had finally made it to the biggest stage of all and fittingly came up big like he had always done. It was a pinnacle moment and left a global audience with the same feeling many had watching him in high school – a mix of disbelief and awe.
He left with a World Cup winners medal and then helped his hometown franchise Hurricanes to a maiden Super Rugby title the following year. Something as a local product will be a cherished achievement for him.
The move to Toulon follows the exact path of another All Black legend, Ma’a Nonu. Fittingly, Nonu was also a Rongotai old boy and has had nearly an identical path. With so much left to give, France will still see the best Savea has to offer. With Top 14 titles and Champions Cups to compete for, Savea will find new challenges and Europe will get a first-hand look at one of the best power wingers in history.
Hopefully, they will leave with that similar feeling of amazement.
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