Sopoaga had been at the club since 2011, played a pivotal role in the unprecedented success the franchise enjoyed under the stewardship of former head coach Jamie Joseph, and was good enough to be considered the second-best first-five in New Zealand behind Beauden Barrett.
He had a wonderful mixture of hard-earned experience and exceptional talent, so when the announcement of his departure to Premiership side Wasps was made ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby campaign, the Highlanders had an unenviable task of unearthing their next star playmaker.
Quality first-fives at Super Rugby level don’t come easily – just ask the likes of Bryn Gatland and Fletcher Smith, both of whom played starring roles in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup with North Harbour and Waikato, only to endure limited game time at the Highlanders and Hurricanes whilst failing to set the world alight when on the park.
What’s more is that to succeed in Super Rugby, a capable first-five is a necessity.
Think of all the title-winning sides since 1996, and in those teams were playmakers that had forged reputations as some of the best of their time.
Spencer, Mehrtens, Larkham, Carter, Steyn, Cooper, Cruden, Foley, Sopoaga, Barrett and now Mo’unga – it’s no coincidence that these players were all genuine stars of their generations and all have Super Rugby titles to their names.
So, when Sopoaga, who helped steer the Highlanders to their maiden crown in 2015, left for greener financial pastures, he left with him a gaping hole within the club’s squad that needed to be filled as quickly as possible.
Head coach Aaron Mauger brought back the experienced Marty Banks this year in a bid to offset the inexperience provided by incumbents Gatland and youngster Josh Ioane.
While many anticipated that it would be Banks that would take the helm of the Highlanders’ playmaking role given his years in a variety of sides both in New Zealand and around the world, it was Ioane that was pushed into the deep end and handed the No. 10 jersey in the side’s first match since Sopoaga’s departure.
Although he’d had a promising Mitre 10 Cup campaign where he showed signs of improvement from a shaky debut Super Rugby season, Ioane’s selection to run the cutter against the Chiefs on February 15 wasn’t one that brought with it an overwhelming sense of security.
With only eight Super Rugby caps to his name, the 23-year-old’s selection instead brought with it a sense of both intrigue and anxiousness as to how he would go in the first match in the post-Sopoaga era of the Highlanders.
What transpired was an admirable performance, with Ioane looking composed and comfortable as he kicked six goals from six attempts to drive his 14-man side to 30-27 win in Hamilton.
As the year has worn on, Ioane’s stature and reputation on a national scale has continued to grow, to the point where many are suggesting the former Samoa U20 representative could well be on his way to an All Blacks call-up.
The quietly-spoken Ioane has since shot down such speculation, telling RugbyPass on Saturday in the wake of the Highlanders’ 32-27 win over the Jaguares: “I just focus on my role in the team, try not to focus on that stuff.
“Still, I’m really learning a lot this year, and I’m enjoying it, and just trying to keep my best foot forward for the team and do my role.”
Regardless of whether a World Cup call-up comes to fruition for the ex-King’s College pupil or not, he has still vastly improved as a footballer.
His ability to splinter the defensive line with ball in hand, or to free up players outside of him with accurate, long range cut out balls has been integral for the Highlanders in 2019, while his kicking – both in general play and from the tee – is a lot better than what it was this time last year.
“I still message the likes of Lima [Sopoaga] and Hayden Parker on social media, still message them with videos on how I can kick better, and even Marty [Banks] helps a bit, but at the end of the day, it’s about going out there and backing yourself,” Ioane said of his refined kicking game.
But, while he credits current and former teammates for his ability from the boot, one of the key factors in Ioane’s sudden rise to national prominence this year – similarly to Sopoaga’s rise to the All Blacks four years ago – has been the presence of halfback Aaron Smith.
Capped 82 times by the All Blacks and a member of the title-winning Highlanders squad, Smith brings an immense amount of experience to balance out the youthfulness of Ioane in the halves.
Together, they’ve created a recipe for a quality partnership.
While Ioane has captivated onlookers with his seemingly fearless ball-running capacity, sensational distribution, and outstanding goal-kicking, a lot of what he’s achieved this year wouldn’t be possible without the involvement of Smith.
The incredibly flat, crisp, accurate passing of Smith is probably the most important aspect of his partnership with Ioane.
It provides his first-five with clean, front-foot ball to work from, with the velocity of his passing giving Ioane more time to work through his options against the defensive line.
As a result, with more time and space available throughout Ioane’s decision-making at first-receiver, opportunities to dent the opposition’s defence through either his running or passing game increase, and with a running and passing game like Ioane’s, he doesn’t need many opportunities to capitalise on.
The influence of the two players has been exemplified over the course of the season, but especially in the Highlanders’ last two outings.
The Dunedin-based club have lost just once in the five matches that both Smith and Ioane have started in the halves together, and the duo’s performances are continuing to ascend into peak form, as was seen in the Highlanders’ 31-all draw with the Chiefs a fortnight ago.
Smith’s passing was so lethal that it assisted three of his team’s four tries, with one of them being a Ioane five-pointer where he took the ball to the line in both hands, leaving defenders Tumua Manu and Etene Nanai-Seturo hapless as he split through the middle of them to crash over from close range.
As for last week’s clash against the Jaguares, the pair worked in tandem beautifully to set free those outside of them, with Ioane setting up tries for flanker James Lentjes and midfielder Sio Tomkinson.
The latter put on a particularly eye-catching display, his best in Highlanders colours this year, leading Ioane to admit that the 9-10-12 axis was a focal point in training earlier in the week.
“We’ve been working on that throughout the week [at] 9, 10 and 12, and we’ve been trying to focus on the connections through the backs,” he said.
With Tomkinson just a year younger than Ioane, it could be a trio of which we could see a lot more of in the future, thanks to 30-year-old Smith recently signing a two-year contract extension with New Zealand Rugby that will keep him in Dunedin until the end of 2021.
“He’s an exciting kid, a quiet fella, but he’s a hard-working guy,” Smith said of Ioane last week.
“He’s exciting, drives our team well, and this year, he’s been brilliant for us. I love just throwing the ball to him, see what he’s going to do. His goal-kicking and everything is great as well, so we’re very lucky.”
The coaching work and selection nous of Mauger to thrust his youngest first-five into the mix from the beginning of the season is starting to pay dividends, and Ioane’s on-field chemistry with Smith is a tantalising prospect.
“We were a lot more clinical, I thought our management of the territory as a lot better this evening. I thought Aaron and Josh controlled that really well,” Mauger said in the wake of the Jaguares fixture.
“I thought Nuggy [Smith] took a lot of that responsibility, I thought his leadership was really clear to see, and Josh is learning.
“He’s getting better every time he’s getting out on the field, so every time he gets 80 minutes of experience under his belt, he’s going to be better for it. He’s growing.”
Now sitting in fifth-place with just five rounds left to play, the priority for Smith, Ioane and the Highlanders for the remainder of the season will be to secure a quarter-finals berth.
But, if this Smith-Ioane partnership in the halves continues to prosper at the rate that it has done this season, calls to see this duo operate at a higher level will only grow louder.
Ioane may have ruled it out for this year at least, but if he and Smith keep up this sort of form together, those calls might just be heard by the All Blacks.
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