The All Blacks’ No.6 jersey is Akira Ioane’s for as long as he wants it.
That’s not a line many of us would ever have imagined typing.
As recently as a year ago, the loose forward looked like he might be more at home in the Heartland Championship than test rugby.
Once a Commonwealth Games and Olympic Sevens medallist, Ioane could’ve passed for a long haul driver from Paeroa or Ashburton who’d enjoyed a few too many meals at his favourite truck stop.
The now-25-year-old was in poor physical shape and seemed mentally shot too, partly thanks to Steve Hansen’s blunt assessment of him.
But such was Ioane’s performance in Saturday’s 38-0 win over Argentina in Newcastle, that you’d have to say he’s suddenly elevated himself to incumbent status.
Jerome Kaino was as good a blindside flanker as we’ve seen in New Zealand. Certainly on a level above peers such as Liam Messam, Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon, Luke Whitelock, Steven Luatua, Victor Vito and Vaea Fifita.
Shannon Frizell’s been given every opportunity to assume Kaino’s mantle – without success – while Cullen Grace is among the would-be or potential contenders. But no-one, you could argue, has presented a more compelling case than Ioane did over the weekend.
Let’s dwell on the past, a little.
New Zealand cricketer John Bracewell famously coined the phrase “flat track bully’’ to describe batsman Graeme Hick in the late 1980s. Hick, of Zimbabwe, slaughtered domestic attacks in Australia, New Zealand and England while serving a seven-year stand down to qualify for the latter.
Sure, as Bracewell pointed out, Hick excelled against modest opposition in ideal conditions, but let’s see how he goes against the West Indies’ four-pronged pace attack. Or any international side for that matter.
Ioane has always been much the same. Pit him against weak Super Rugby or Mitre 10 Cup sides – on occasions when the Blues or Auckland are already on top – and he’ll run rampant.
Take him somewhere like AMI Stadium, though, and he’d often go missing.
Hansen gave Ioane every opportunity to change that view. He invited him to All Blacks camps or picked him in squads in the hope of unlocking the obvious potential.
The Blues’ environment might not have been up to much, but Hansen wagered a week or two with the All Blacks would sort Ioane out.
Only it never did and despite the exposure to those standards and the encouraging fire-side chats, Ioane remained the lazy, ill-disciplined player he’d always been.
“You can only lead a horse to water, you can’t make it drink,’’ Hansen said of Ioane last season. “He’s got to decide to get thirsty.’’
Ioane struggled to command a spot in Auckland’s starting side. A player of immense promise, he appeared washed up at a frighteningly-early age and destined for a contract overseas.
In isolation, Ioane’s performance against the Pumas on Saturday was very good. But when you think about the depths he seemed to have sunk to last year, it was actually quite startling.
We’re looking for sustained ferocity out of an All Blacks’ blindside flanker. Someone with a high work rate, who carries hard and hurts people on defence.
Typified by Kaino, it’s an explosive and intimidating role, rather than a grafting one.
Ioane looked fit and fearless and even a little bit frightening against Argentina. More than that, he looked a man, and not the overgrown schoolboy he’s sometimes resembled until now.
It’s one thing to be bigger and stronger and faster than most people on the paddock, but quite another to have the work ethic to go with it. Dominating age-group rugby with ease doesn’t always help players in the long run and it definitely didn’t look like it was doing much for Ioane.
To his enormous credit, Ioane now appears to have developed the thirst Hansen spoke about and there’s no doubt he’s been the find of the All Blacks’ season.
The talent’s always been there and on Saturday we saw it combined with enough accuracy and ferocity to suggest we’ve finally found our blindside flanker.
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