Rieko Ioane will be hoping a few defences open as easily and dramatically as the opportunity currently in front of him to establish himself in the All Blacks No 13 jersey.
Wherever Ioane was in the national pecking order in February, he came into the Pasifika Series in July as the first-choice centre in the country after all the various other contenders either pulled up lame, failed to find their form or dabbled in other positions.
Ioane, to some extent, has been the beneficiary of the misfortune of others, but he can’t be portrayed as exclusively lucky. That would do a massive injustice to the form he showed for the Blues throughout both versions of Super Rugby and while it’s true that he has had some good fortune, he’s made plenty of that good luck for himself.
For the second year in succession, Ioane has been the form No 13 in New Zealand – a creator and scorer of tries and a player who has continued to wield an influence that simply can’t be missed.
The difference, this year compared with last, is that he has also been smarter and more resilient on defence, not just making telling tackles but covering the space with more certainty and better anticipation.
That jump in defensive horsepower truly matters as Ioane’s time in the All Blacks No 13 jersey last year came to an abrupt halt 60 minutes into the first test of the year.
The popular belief is that he was hooked early against the Wallabies in Wellington for his infamous lack of attention when touching down before half-time – a blip that saw him spill the ball and squander a certain seven points in a game that ended in a draw.
The issue that saw him not win another start in that role, however, was the struggle he had reading the Wallabies attack and their first try came when he was caught out of position.
He started four of the next five games on the bench with one other start coming on the left wing – the position in which most of the rugby watching public continue to believe is his best, at international level at least.
The second major difference in 2021 is that the All Blacks, as mentioned, don’t have the able bodies they had last year. Jack Goodhue is out for the whole year, Peter Umaga Jensen has gone backwards, Anton Lienert-Brown, brilliant though he is, still can’t make a case to definitively be considered a 13 as he offers just as much at 12 and the other two midfielders in the squad, Quinn Tupaea and David Havili, are in there to specialise at second five, because that is seen as the real problem position.
All through school until I got to Super Rugby, I played centre. That’s where I enjoyed the game and my time on the wing came because at the Blues there were opportunities there.
And so Ioane, who was recognised as one of the deadliest wings in the world game between 2017 and 2019, may now reap the benefits of his brave decision in late 2019 to tell All Blacks coach Ian Foster that he wanted to play at centre.
It felt, to those who had not known Ioane while he was carving up in schools rugby, to be an almost mad decision. There he was, scoring tries for fun on the left wing, using his electric top-end pace to be just about unstoppable and he wanted to give it all up to compete for a berth in the midfield.
But for Ioane, it was the dream he’d long-held and while the rest of the world knew him as a wing, the position was in fact quite alien to him.
“I have always enjoyed playing centre,” he tells The XV. “All through school until I got to Super Rugby, I played centre. That’s where I enjoyed the game and my time on the wing came because at the Blues there were opportunities there.
“And then I guess I played decent enough footy there. But after a couple of seasons playing wing for the Blues and the All Blacks I just wanted to give centre a go. I would have loved to have started there but things started differently.
“At the moment, I am happy with the decision and my goal is to just get as many games as I can play and play as well as I can and be the best player I can be.”
How extended that run will be, depends on the injury status of the other contenders and the ability of Ioane to keep posting performances that allay any doubt that he’s a better option at 13 than he is at 11.
And the toughest part in adjusting from his time on the wing, is, he says, altering his mindset from being a finisher to a distributor and accepting the more disciplined and structured expectations that come with playing in the midfield.
“One thing that sticks out is my running lines in general attack is a lot different to wing,” he says. “At wing you are the last man on the chain and you can go whatever way you want. Centre is more about straightening up the attack and distributing and getting out of that mindset of am I supplier am I finisher.
“On the wing you are a finisher at centre you are a supplier and I know that there was nothing worse than having a centre who would run you out of space or wouldn’t pass you the ball.
He has never really had a settled time in that space and in some ways that has been made easier for us with Anton’s [Lienert-Brown] injury and with Braydon’s [Ennor] injury.
Ian Foster on Rieko Ioane
“I played a handful of games at centre for the Blues prior to last year and I think I was still in that wing’s mindset.
“Last year and even this year I am growing that way of thinking and when you come to test level, it is about having to adjust again so having a few games under my belt, I’ll be feeling happier.”
There is, for the short-term at least, an alignment between his and coach Ian Foster’s ambition.
Having picked him to start the first two tests of the 2021 season, Foster said it was important to provide Ioane with an extended opportunity to embed himself.
The coach knows that Ioane can revert to the left wing in a heartbeat, but for now, the intent is to develop him in the midfield.
“Early on it has been our desire to give him a few runs there, to give him a chance,” said Foster earlier this week. “He has never really had a settled time in that space and in some ways that has been made easier for us with Anton’s [Lienert-Brown] injury and with Braydon’s [Ennor] injury.
“We have seen him in Super Rugby and I thought he showed some really good signs of growth with the Blues and I thought some of the key areas that we have potentially been a little bit critical of him before, he addressed last week [against Tonga] and I was pleased with his game last week.
“I thought Tonga were pretty passive in the outside channels against us which meant we were able to play a high-skilled game there and I think we will be challenged more in our decisions.
“It is one of the big things how people defend on the edge and everyone does it slightly differently and it is not about getting everything right there, it is about learning what they do and then adjusting.
“You are not after perfection, but you are after learning through a game particularly in that centre position, rather than just waiting for the Monday review.”
He’s a player who enjoys physical conflict and finds that the greater activity that comes with playing in the midfield brings the best out of him.
There is one other major difference between wing and midfield, which is the respective physical profiles of the two roles.
Interestingly, Ioane says he has dropped in weight from about 107kg to 102kg since he started playing in the midfield, laughing at the irony of being a leaner athlete in the position which comes with endless carnage.
But he says that the contact side of playing 13 suits him. He’s a player who enjoys physical conflict and finds that the greater activity that comes with playing in the midfield brings the best out of him.
“You start walking off games feeling a lot sorer than you do when you play on the wing,” he says. “There is a lot of traffic in and around your channel. I have had games on the wing where I have made just one or two tackles and by Monday morning when everyone is sore, I am ready to go.
“But at centre you make six or seven tackles and you are often running into brick walls to set the next attack up. I enjoy that because there is a lot more involvement for me. I like the tough stuff, grinding away that’s where you get the enjoyment at 13 – in the collision area and I love being around it.”
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