Why the All Blacks just can't seem to leave out Rieko Ioane
Rieko Ioane has been a busy man this year.
After starting all 14 of the Blues’ matches throughout Super Rugby – including their Trans-Tasman final against the Hurricanes, the wing-cum-centre is now set to play his tenth game of the All Blacks‘ international campaign when he runs out against the Springboks on Saturday night.
Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie have also been named for their tenth appearances in the black jersey for 2021 but half of each of their showings have come off the bench. Ioane, by contrast, will make his ninth start on Saturday.
The 24-year-old is in nearing career-best form, having struggled throughout 2019 and 2020 after first making a name for himself against the British and Irish Lions in 2017.
That lull in form was, as explained by Foster a few weeks ago, very much a product of some lingering injury issues.
“He’s as sharp as I’ve seen him,” the All Blacks head coach said at the time.
“He had a calf injury that really impacted him in 2019, it slowed him down a little bit. I think he came back in 2020 and now this year, as sharp as I’ve seen.”
While the young outside back has made it known that he now prefers to play in the No 13 jersey, he’s looked just as dangerous in his old spot out on the left wing this year, where half of his run-on roles have come throughout the season.
That’s also where he’ll start this weekend, with Anton Lienert-Brown making a long-awaited return from injury to slot in at centre.
With plenty of wing options in the squad, including George Bridge, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan, Braydon Ennor and Jordie Barrett, Ioane’s continual selection in the match-day side is somewhat curious after Foster made it clear earlier in the All Blacks’ Rugby Championship campaign that in an ideal world, no player would feature in all five matches played in Australia.
“The answer’s no, I don’t anticipate someone playing five in a row,” Foster said in advance of NZ’s first match with Argentina. “But with the combinations and the ramifications of injuries and travel and quarantining, I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.”
While Ioane’s form has made him difficult to leave out of the side, those injury ramifications have also ultimately played a part.
Lienert-Brown has missed the past three tests with a frustrating hamstring strain and with the only other centre option in the squad, Braydon Ennor, undercooked from his own injury issues throughout the earlier part of the year, the burden naturally fell on Ioane.
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“He’s a back three and a midfield cover and [while] we’ve had the likes of Braydon Ennor [to pick from], he’s been here [but] hasn’t played much rugby this year because of Covid and quarantining, we weren’t able to give him a guy for Canterbury that he needed before we came over,” Foster said.
“And then with Anton’s ongoing injury over what we thought was going to be one week, turned out to be three weeks. So it has increased the workload on Rieko, there’s no doubt about that. We’re very mindful of that but it’s more a consequence of a couple of other variables in the squad rather than just wanting to play him every week.
“But, to be fair to him, he’s actually done it pretty well. We’ve taken him off early once, I think, in order to try to save his batteries but he’s ready to go.”
With Bridge and Jordan perhaps not performing to the standard that was desired last weekend, and Barret firmly entrenched in the fullback jersey, that leaves only Ioane as a match-fit option on the left wing.
Ioane, like many of his teammates, perhaps wasn’t at his best in the first game with the Springboks but this week’s rematch gives the dangerous ball-runner the opportunity to make amends.
Saturday’s match kicks off at 8:05pm AEST from CBUS Super Stadium on Australia’s Gold Coast.
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