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Where does Rieko Ioane fit in an injury-free All Blacks backline?

By Tom Vinicombe

Trending on RugbyPass

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A number of All Blacks stood out against the Wallabies over the weekend, including captain Sam Whitelock for his physicality, first five Richie Mo’unga for his control of the game and Damian McKenzie for his monstrous 59-metre penalty.

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One of the biggest movers in the international season to date, however, is wing-cum-centre Rieko Ioane, who was at his destructive best against Australia in the mammoth 57-22 victory.

While Ioane initially made a name for himself as a exceptional left wing, it’s in the midfield where he’s spent the past two seasons for the Blues.

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In 2020, Ioane was handed the No 13 jersey for the first game of the All Blacks’ campaign but earned just one further start for the national side last year, at No 11. Already, Ioane has had greater opportunities in the midfield this season and is starting to look more and more comfortable in the outside centre role.

Despite Ioane’s form for the Blues in their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title-winning campaign, however, it’s fair to say that his promotion into the No 13 jersey has in some ways been a product of luck.

All three of Ioane’s starts in the centre role this season have come while Anton Lienert-Brown has been sidelined through injury while Jack Goodhue, another experience midfield option, is out for the entirety of the test campaign.

It begs the question, where does Rieko Ioane fit in an injury-free All Blacks backline?

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All 31 of Ioane’s international starts to date have come in the No 11 or No 13 jersey and once everyone is fit and firing, there’s going to be plenty of competition for both those roles.

Lienert-Brown and Goodhue are both more than capable of stepping into both inside and outside centre and have done so for the All Blacks on multiple occasions. In theory, one of the two could be shifted to No 12 to accommodate for Ioane but the selectors have understandably been enamoured with utility David Havili in that role since he shifted there for the Crusaders earlier this year.

Havili, a playmaker in his own right, is a handy man to have on the field to take some of the pressure off whoever is wearing the No 10 jersey and head coach Ian Foster may be reluctant to leave the 26-year-old out of the side, given his wide range of skills and all-round composure.

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Even if Havili is dropped from the starting lineup, one of Goodhue or Lienert-Brown would still have to miss out on selection for Ioane to hold onto his spot at centre.

Ioane will face similar competition on the left wing, however.

22-year-old Caleb Clarke was the preferred option in the No 11 jersey for the All Blacks last year and has recently returned from a stint with the national sevens side.

While Clarke, by his own admission, hasn’t exactly had things go all his own way this year, the selectors will be hopeful that the young wing can rediscover the form of 2020 upon his eventual return to the squad.

There’s also George Bridge to consider. Bridge was the man to usurp Ioane on the left wing ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup but injuries have thwarted his international aspirations since.

Last year, a pectoral injury suffered at training scrubbed Bridge for the entirety of the international calendar after just one test – handing Clarke the jersey – and he’s also struggled with a few ups and downs in 2021.

Like Clarke, Bridge hasn’t been at his best this season but with some consistent minutes under his belt, he’ll be back as a force.

Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Super Rugby centurion James Parsons suggested that the All Blacks selectors will be keen to have Ioane somewhere in the matchday squad, in any position, given his current rich vein of form.

“I think they’re looking to find time for Rieko wherever it best suits that 23 because he’s in such good form,” Parsons said. “And he can go between [midfield and wing] quite comfortably, which is massive. Centre is becoming more and more comfortable for him at this level.

“What will be a big test of his growth is that rush D of South Africa. As we’ve seen on the weekend as well, that defensive pressure – and it’s relentless for 80 minutes – will be a big challenge for the All Blacks midfield when they come up against them.”

Because the majority of Ioane’s top-level exposure in the midfield has come in the past two seasons, the 24-year-old has had limited experience fronting up against South African teams, given their absence from Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship in 2020 and 2021 (bar a handful of games at the beginning of last year’s Super Rugby season). As such, the Springboks will prevent a massive new challenge for Ioane.

With Goodhue out for the rest of the season, Ioane shouldn’t struggle to hold his spot as one of the top three midfielders in the All Blacks squad, even on the end of year tour.

Whether he’s able to spot in a the matchday starting lineup, however, is another story.

The 24-year-old has faced plenty of challenges over the past five years – and this is just one more for Rieko Ioane to contend with.

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Where does Rieko Ioane fit in an injury-free All Blacks backline?

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