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RUGBYPASS+ Career-defining season ahead for former All Black Josh Ioane

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Career-defining season ahead for former All Black Josh Ioane
7 months ago

The upcoming Super Rugby Pacific season shapes as career-defining for Josh Ioane.

Ioane first earned national selection in 2019, getting the call-up to the All Blacks for their condensed Rugby Championship ahead of that year’s World Cup.

It was a similar situation to 2015 when another Highlanders playmaker, Lima Sopoaga, was brought into the squad as back-up to the core group of flyhalves with a World Cup on the horizon.

Unlike Sopoaga in 2015, however, Ioane wasn’t asked to front up at any stage during the Rugby Championship.

While Sopoaga had been one of the form players during the 2015 domestic season, guiding the Highlanders to their first and only Super Rugby title and effectively forcing his way into the national squad, Ioane’s elevation was perhaps more a product of the lack of other experienced options.

Lima Sopoaga and Kieran Read celebrate together during Sopoaga’s debut match for the All Blacks. (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Was Josh Ioane ready to play international rugby in 2019? Probably not – but with Damian McKenzie ruled out for the bulk of the year thanks to a horror ACL injury, Ioane was effectively the next cab off the ranks, and the All Blacks needed a contingency in place in case they lost any further flyhalves during the World Cup, as had become somewhat of a tradition.

Ioane wasn’t thrust into action during the Rugby Championship but did eventually earn himself a test debut in the All Blacks’ final game before heading north to the World Cup, coming off the bench in a 92-7 flogging of Tonga.

In the years since, Ioane’s career has stalled. Game time in the Highlanders No 10 jersey came at a premium in 2020 and 2021, with the form of Mitch Hunt forcing Ioane to spend the bulk of those two campaigns playing at fullback or in the midfield.

Even when given flyhalf duties for Otago in the NPC, Ioane didn’t operate with the poise, control or flair that you would expect from an international-capped five-eighth.

Then there were the off-field issues. Multiple times over the past two years, Ioane has been stood down from representing Otago or the Highlanders for indiscretions.

To be really transparent, I think that Josh has come to the Chiefs because he wants to play 10 and he sees an opportunity to really challenge for a starting spot.

Chiefs head coach Clayton McMillan

Instead of kicking on after his All Blacks call-up in 2019, Ioane was treading water and at risk of drowning, but a shift north to the Chiefs for the upcoming campaign could be the spark needed to reignite the 26-year-old’s career.

First and foremost, that means regularly earning minutes in the No 10 jersey.

“First five is my preferred position,” Ioane told RugbyPass last year after signing for the Chiefs.

Head coach Clayton McMillan also confirmed during the pre-season that Ioane had his sights set on one jersey and one jersey alone.

“To be really transparent, I think that Josh has come to the Chiefs because he wants to play 10 and he sees an opportunity to really challenge for a starting spot,” he said.

Josh Ioane and Bryn Gatland previously both represented the Highlanders but the pair are signed with the Chiefs for 2022. (Photo by Joe Allison/Photosport)

That opportunity has presented itself thanks to Damian McKenzie’s shift to Japan, with neither Bryn Gatland nor Kaleb Trask taking ownership of the role last year.

Trask hasn’t played in either of the Chiefs’ pre-season matches this season after picking up a knock in an internal trial game while Gatland and Ioane have each had 85 minutes of action in the driver’s seat during February.

On form, Ioane may have edged himself ahead in the pecking order and is probably the favourite to run out at flyhalf against his old side when the Chiefs take on the Highlanders in Queenstown on Saturday.

At his best, Ioane possesses an incisive running game – something which was on full display in the Chiefs’ 40 minutes of action against the Blues over the weekend, with the playmaker twisting and bouncing out of tackles regularly throughout the half of action.

The No 10 jersey isn’t one you can fill when you’re down on confidence and while Ioane may have lacked that over the past two years, a new environment and a solid pre-season looks to have given him a new lease on life, at least in the early stages of 2022.

New Zealand’s three first-choice flyhalves will all be absent from action for the opening round of Super Rugby Pacific, with McKenzie in Japan, Richie Mo’unga enjoying an extended off-season break and Beauden Barrett still recovering from a head knock suffered against Ireland on the All Blacks’ end-of-year tour.

Although the man himself has always maintained that he’s only focussing on the short-term at present, the possibilities of an All Blacks recall shouldn’t be discounted.

New Zealand’s three first-choice flyhalves will all be absent from action for the opening round of Super Rugby Pacific, with McKenzie in Japan, Richie Mo’unga enjoying an extended off-season break and Beauden Barrett still recovering from a head knock suffered against Ireland on the All Blacks’ end-of-year tour.

Behind that trio, as was the case when Ioane first earned his national call-up in 2019, the cupboard remains relatively bare.

Otere Black has headed offshore, leaving Harry Plummer and Stephen Perofeta to contest starting flyhalf duties for the Blues in Barrett’s absence, with both players arguably looking more comfortable in other positions throughout their still blooming Super Rugby careers to date.

Down south, Hunt will be supported by 32-year-old Marty Banks at the Highlanders while the Crusaders will likely open their campaign with 22-year-old Fergus Burke in the No 10 jersey – a man who has made just one start at Super Rugby level.

Ruben Love is perhaps the brightest flyhalf talent coming through the Super Rugby ranks for New Zealand. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, have youngsters Ruben Love and Aidan Morgan on their books, as well as the returning Jackson Garden-Bachop.

While Love is perhaps the player with the highest ceiling of the above group, he’s still a few seasons away from being ready to play test rugby.

Ioane, on the other hand, has shown in the past that he can reach dizzying heights and with McKenzie, Mo’unga and Barrett off the menu in the early stages of the season, all eyes will be on the man wearing the Chiefs No 10 jersey.

World Rugby’s changes to the regulations of the game mean that Ioane is no longer tied to representing New Zealand on the test stage; he could switch his allegiance to Samoa, if he so chooses. Had the 26-year-old continued to labour away at the Highlanders, treading water as the next generation of talent slowly forced their way through the ranks, an allegiance change could have been on the cards for Ioane in the near future.

Having headed to the Chiefs, however, you get the feeling that Josh Ioane is giving himself one final chance at cracking the big leagues.

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