There always seems to be a 'but' when it comes to the career of Akira Ioane
It seems Akira Ioane will have to keep proving himself.
Seven tests deep into an international career that once looked like it might never get off the ground, the elder Ioane is coming off two standout displays for the All Blacks in Bledisloe II and III.
He looks dynamic with ball in hand, dangerous in the wider channels and yet not neglecting his defensive duties and the need to clear bodies at rucks. Ioane is showing rugby watchers just how good he can be, turning his potential to substance in the All Blacks.
But that has not been enough to win over all his critics. It hasn’t helped him that the nation was obsessed with finding the next Jerome Kaino, a man with far more defensive clout than, say, Ian Kirkpatrick, who is held in the highest esteem.
Hell, it was only 12 months ago that Ioane was no longer considered a specialist No 8. He put his head down and played in very un-Akira Ioane-like fashion, rolling his sleeves up without the ball and upping his work-rate. He won two long-awaited caps and appeared to have conquered the mental demons which almost saw him give the game away in 2019.
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So it seemed weird that he slipped down the blindside flanker pecking order during Super Rugby 2021. Though he started out in the No 6 jersey with the Blues, Ioane fell off the pace, usurped by Tom Robinson and his octane allround game, which included winning plenty of lineout ball.
Hoskins Sotutu was close to the best Kiwi No 8 in Super Rugby, and so Ioane had to cool his heels in the No 20 jersey in the latter half of the season. He only started the Trans-Tasman final due to Robinson’s concussion.
Meanwhile, Shannon Frizell was in imposing form at the Highlanders, the rise of Ethan Blackadder at the Crusaders continued unabated and Luke Jacobson and Pita-Gus Sowakula were thriving at the Chiefs in the 8-6 punch.
There was stiff competition on the blindside and Ioane, it was feared, might get squeezed out. But All Blacks selectors Ian Foster, John Plumtree and Grant Fox kept the faith. Ioane has repaid them with five starts from six outings. He was untarred with the brush of the passive pack effort in Dunedin against Fiji.
We saw him explode at Eden Park in Bledisloe Two last month, clearly his best test. That was until September 5, 2021.
It wasn’t just that he ran for 88m, beat nine defenders and set up Will Jordan with power and skill. It was that he led an All Blacks pack shorn of Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Dane Coles, Joe Moody and Ofa Tuungafasi, and which lost Codie Taylor and skipper Ardie Savea before oranges in Perth. Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett battled manfully in the trenches, but Ioane provided the spark and the X-factor for a team a long way from full strength.
This was impressive stuff.
But… and there always seems to be a but when it comes to the career of Akira Ioane. It is like those Ardie Savea detractors who are yet to be convinced he is a key man man to stem the tide of behemoth Boks, French or English in the collisions.
But… many are still yet to be convinced that Ioane is the real deal as an All Blacks forward of substance. They will reserve judgement until September 25 and October 2 when he must face down the likes of Springboks Duane Vermeulen and Siya Kolisi, not to mention Jasper Wise and Kwagga Smith. They are all quality, physical footballers, yet none possess the all-round game of Akira Latrell Ioane.
This scribe has a feeling that a few of those hard to please critics might just come around when the final throes of the Rugby Championship are played out.
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