This year marked the second season in Rieko Ioane’s transformation into a test level outside centre, and while it produced flashes of magnificence, it’s safe to say the All Blacks haven’t quite figured out how to best use him yet.
He showed his explosive ability against Ireland by linking up with Will Jordan to regather his chip kick and provide a return pass to set his teammate up for a try, and then again with a brilliant solo scoring effort against France from a counter-attack.
Yet these moments came from opportunistic situations that just scratch the surface of what the All Blacks could be doing to truly turn Ioane into the best strike centre in the game.
At present, Ioane’s best chances with ball-in-hand come from turnover ball where the All Blacks look to move the ball quickly to space out wide. When those opportunities aren’t coming, Ioane can end up without much involvement.
If they are to unlock his full potential while he is in his prime, they must diversify their attack and offer up more planned opportunities in addition to ad-hoc transition plays.
At 24-years-old, Ioane is still one of the most exciting attacking prospects in the game, with unrivalled breakaway speed that is his greatest asset.
His lightning speed has been on show for the Blues over the last two seasons of Super Rugby Aotearoa after a 2019 slump where he battled a hamstring niggle which impacted his speed.
If you can get him into the backfield, you can guarantee that a try-scoring opportunity will be on the table.
Getting Ioane in open space more often should be one of the All Blacks’ biggest priorities heading into next year. If they want to turn around their attack into a high-scoring force once again, utilising their most dangerous assets is key.
When he has played at 13 for the All Blacks, Ioane’s role in the midfield has been somewhat limiting from set-piece attack, which means one of New Zealand’s best weapons is not getting used all that much from that platform.
With most the red zone plays centred around David Havili as the first playmaker, his role has been to tighten up the defence by running a narrow flat option for his midfield partner.
The play does not often create space for Ioane as it instead asks him to create time for those out the back.
Throughout 2021, Havili either took the carry himself or linked with his first-five out the back almost every time. Those are the two most common outcomes of this starter play at the moment, with Ioane rarely getting the short ball.
Ioane still needs to perfect his ability to this run, known as an unders line, as it is an important tool to have in his arsenal that can be applied from other set-piece play variations.
If he is able to hit top speed at the right moment heading into half a gap, he will puncture the line, if not create a half-break. It will be harder at test level, but, first and foremost, clinical execution of the unders line is something Ioane doesn’t yet possess.
Peter Umaga-Jensen of the Hurricanes is currently the best centre in New Zealand at running this type of line.
The Hurricanes used a wider variation of a similar concept against Ioane and the Blues in 2020. Umaga-Jensen came in from a wide angle and hit the ball at pace.
Umaga-Jensen started this play lined up at fullback, timed his run perfectly and trusted the pass would be there from his midfield partner Ngani Laumape.
He steamed onto the ball against the grain, underneath the gaze of Ioane, his opposite centre, and outside the weaker defender Harry Plummer, who was at second-five.
If Ioane can develop this line-running skill with his pace, he can be a strike runner from set-piece play and be incorporated in more plays.
Ioane’s favourite option in any situation is taking the outside break, and with speed to burn, it is a natural source of big plays for him, but the only chance he often gets space on the outside with the All Blacks is currently from turnover ball.
After a stolen lineout throw against Fiji in Dunedin earlier this year, quick distribution through the backline gave Ioane a chance to break the defensive line, and he did so by put his foot down to slice up the middle.
Finding ways to use Ioane on the outside from set-piece play will expand the number of chances he has to make plays like above.
The only set-piece play currently in the All Blacks’ playbook that uses Ioane at centre as the central playmaker is the miss-one pass where the first-five offers early ball to the centre, who then has options flat and out the back.
The play uses the blindside wing, Jordie Barrett (14) above, coming around the corner with the fullback running a flat short line outside the centre.
The centre is ultimately required to stay square and make a pass to free up a supporting runner, either the wing or fullback, which means Ioane can’t run to the outside and use his speed.
The play is best suited against an outside-in rush where the opposition is committing to stop the ball going wide, like above against Ireland.
When the All Blacks used it against the Wallabies in Wellington last year, when Ioane made his first start at centre, nothing opened up for him.
That is because the Australian set-piece defence is passive and works inside-out to let the attack move the ball to the sideline so they don’t get drawn into contact easily. Had Ioane played any of his two options, the defence would have slid over.
In 2021, the Wallabies continued to show a whip/drift defence, with a preference for pushing the opposition over the sideline.
This type of set-piece defence presents the perfect opportunity for the All Blacks to use Ioane’s speed on the outside break from a variation of the same miss-one pass.
Ioane’s try against France in Paris on the first phase after the ruck turnover was essentially against the same defensive system Australia’s backs use.
France’s transition defence is trying to push the ball to the sideline, Ioane has the space to run and the wing Gabin Villière is in backpedal mode to buy time for his inside cover.
Shaping to pass, Ioane held off Villière long enough to ensure the inside defender was beaten.
The All Blacks can encourage Ioane to attack the outside break when facing a set-piece drift defence from the same skip pass play, with some adjustments to help him out.
The speed of Ioane on the outside would really pressure the defence to chase. In the drift defence system, they are already playing inside-out so will naturally be chasing anyway, but if Ioane is actually given a license to take the space, it would be a different proposition for the defence to handle.
The idea would be to give Ioane the opportunity to take his opposite centre on the outside in an attempt to get to the deep wing, who would likely still be playing jockey defence like Villière above.
It will be much harder for Ioane to skin outside centres at the international level, which is why a few adjustments can be made to help out.
The first adjustment to the play is to set the fullback very wide, near the wing, who will then cut underneath Ioane when they run out of room.
If the opposite centre chases hard and catches Ioane, he has the option to play the fullback underneath on a switch, which means the opposite 12 also has to be chasing hard inside as well.
Ioane’s speed has the ability to open the gap between the defending 12 and 13 by pulling them further apart, creating a lane for the fullback to cut back underneath.
The switch line by the fullback may also cause the chasing centre to hesitate just slightly, in which case Ioane will have the time to turn the corner and burn upfield towards the wing.
The second adjustment is for the blindside wing to run a support line inside the switch by the 15, providing another inside option in case the switch is executed by Ioane.
The fullback can hit the blindside winger against the grain if they have a better running opportunity.
Effectively it is a wide 3-5 cut with an inside ball to 14, allowing Ioane to use his speed on the outside and make drift defences really work to close him down.
If they over-chase, he can bring play back underneath on the switch. If they aren’t fast enough to catch him, he should end up with a winger off each hip downfield with the opportunity to score another try like that against France.
This is just one example of scheming plays to suit Ioane’s skillset and the defensive system he will face to best find success. It is a case of being better prepared and tailoring the attack to the opposition, something the All Blacks have been poor at, rolling out the same plays against every team.
The Wallabies and Wales use this drift defence where this play is suitable, but against others like the Springboks or Ireland other plays need to be used.
Ioane is used to getting early ball which, by default, results in him drifting sideways, waiting to get the next pass during phase play.
In this shift against Fiji, Jordie and Beauden Barrett meandered a little bit before distributing the ball without being direct. Ioane stutter stepped at a half jog waiting for his chance to get the ball, and is then chopped down without much room to work with.
This was a fundamental issue with everyone in the All Blacks, who had a lack of playmakers taking on the line with options flat. They weren’t working to create for each other, just pushing early ball and expecting someone to do something by themselves.
Ioane rarely ran a support line in anticipation of getting an offload or short pass into a hole for the All Blacks, instead just drifting waiting for early ball, which is one area to find balance with.
If the playmakers in the All Blacks can put Ioane into space, good things will happen.
In almost the exact same situation as above against Fiji, Blues fullback Stephen Perofeta took on the line against the Highlanders during Super Rugby Aotearoa with direct impetus, unlike the Barrett boys.
Ioane got the cue from Perofeta and hit the acceleration, running off his teammate’s outside shoulder with perfect timing before getting an offload at pace from the Blues playmaker. After being tackled, Ioane keeps the ball alive and the Blues score.
It’s this kind of support line that is sorely needed by the All Blacks from Ioane as a centre.
As a breakaway threat, this is the chemistry, communication and understanding he needs to develop with playmakers like the Barretts and Richie Mo’unga to give them a supporting option. They themselves haven’t been taking on the line, but they need to.
The All Blacks need to avoid nothing plays like this against France where Mo’unga shovelled early to Ioane, and he just tucked it and carried.
There is no line speed from France, which offered Mo’unga the chance to press forward and ball-play at the line. Neither Mo’unga or Ioane is looking to create space for anyone, although it looks like Barrett is anticipating a support line outside Ioane. The end result is an easy read for France to tackle an isolated one-out runner.
Barrett and Mo’unga have the skills to create space for Ioane when they play flat, which is what we saw against the Springboks on the Gold Coast when they combined to set-up Ardie Savea from a set-piece play.
There just has to be balance between running support lines as opposed to waiting for early ball, which at the moment is too skewed towards the latter during phase play.
With the talent around him in the All Blacks, there is no doubt they can create more opportunities for Ioane in space by working on forming these combinations.
If the All Blacks want to get the most out of him at 13, they also have to settle on a midfield partner with a skillset that complements Ioane so that chemistry can be formed.
Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith had the benefit of playing years together at the Hurricanes, whereas none of the current All Black midfield options outside of Quinn Tupaea and Anton Lienert-Brown actually play together at club level.
The best thing the Blues could do for Ioane’s game at No 13 is find the next All Blacks No 12, a second-five that has the ability to punch through the line and offload would be a boon for Ioane’s support running.
At least with Barrett back at No 10 for the Blues next year, he and Ioane have the chance to strengthen their understanding of each other and get on the same page with seeing a defensive picture and thinking the same thing.
There are many issues with the All Blacks’ attacking play, but getting the best out of Ioane will go some way to solving them.
At 24 years-old, there is so much untapped potential left and if they get things right, he can dominate the international rugby stage again, this time as a centre.