Rieko Ioane has lost a little weight, but none of his belief.
The new, trimmer, version will start on the left wing for the Blues against the Chiefs at Eden Park on Friday as confident as ever in his abilities after a disappointing 2019 All Black campaign which saw him usurped by George Bridge for the No 11 jersey after the Crusader’s superb Bledisloe Cup performance against the Wallabies at the same ground last August.
From being a near starting certainty at the beginning of the year, the still only 22-year-old Ioane played three matches at the World Cup and started only against Canada and the bronze medal match against Wales.
“It was a huge learning for me through the whole of 2019, especially that World Cup,” Ioane said. “Not only was it the disappointment of that semifinal, but everything; learning to go from being a starter to not playing.
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“I’m hugely excited for this year and looking forward to getting back to playing some good footy.
“It didn’t dent [my confidence] too much. Obviously I was disappointed I wasn’t playing but I think everyone would be. I knew the bigger picture was the World Cup itself. I just had to do my best to help the team.
“I had communication with [then All Blacks assistant coach] Foz [Ian Foster] the whole time. I was in a good headspace.”
He certainly seems it as he prepares for a fresh start in what is his 50th game for the Blues. He is slimmer – he confirmed he weighs about 102kg, down from his playing weight of about 105kg last year, and seems to be relishing a role that will include a large leadership component.
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“It’s the lightest I’ve been for a while,” he said. “I thought this time around I would try something a bit different and be a bit lighter – which shouldn’t be the case at centre – but I feel good. The speed is up there and the fitness is up there.
“I don’t feel too different, I just get around easier, hopefully we’ll see this Friday how the contact goes.”
Ioane, who will be on restricted minutes over the next few weeks due to the All Black return-to-play protocols, shed the weight by “doing a bit more training in the offseason”. There was “nothing drastic,” he said, “no vegan or vegetarian diet as of yet.”
He confirmed he sees his future in the midfield rather than the left wing for the Blues, despite a test try-scoring record on the left which would suggest he is better suited there than anywhere else. In 29 tests, Ioane has scored 24 tries. He averages a try a game in Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship tests.
English newcomer Joe Marchant will start at centre against the Chiefs, with TJ Faiane inside him at second-five.
“Wing I find comes pretty naturally,” Ioane said. “I trained there a bit when we first came in but over the last the weeks I’ve trained just at centre. I’m happy to switch in and out wherever the team needs me but I’m looking forward to playing centre this year.
“That’s where I want to play.”
In the meantime he is happy to be what’s best for the team. And, like coach Leon MacDonald and his teammates, there are few predictions for this season after so many recent disappointments for the franchise.
“The proof will be in the pudding,” he said.
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