Unlock premium content and more with all-new RugbyPass+ Unlock Premium with RugbyPass+
Close Notice

RUGBYPASS+ The Ioane brothers are coming of age for the All Blacks

Powered by
Powered by TheXV
The Ioane brothers are coming of age for the All Blacks

Within Auckland rugby circles, the Ioane brothers have been talked about for an age. They were unmissable while they were at school – too big, too strong and too fast to be anything other than stars even at an institution with the prestige and reputation of Auckland Grammar.

Akira, older by two years, was a man-child at 17, capable of running over just about anything. He proved that when he made his debut for the Blues in 2015 when he was just 19, famously scoring a wonder try against the Western Force where he took off inside his own half, swatted a few defenders away and then just kept going all the way to the try-line.

It was an awesome display of speed, athleticism and raw power from a young man, who at 1.94m and 113kg, was playing in the back-row, but looked capable of swapping to the wing if needs be.

The excitement factor around Akira was high, as it was with younger brother Rieko, who had been signed by the Blues while he was in his final year of school.

Blues coach John Kirwan was with former All Blacks coach Graham Henry watching Ioane play for the Blues Under-18 team in 2014 when the latter said after half an hour: “Sign him now, he’s going to be an All Black.”

Rieko Ioane first announced himself to the wider world via the All Blacks Sevens side. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

That’s how certain everyone was they were looking at greatness and sure enough, in 2016, Rieko came back from the Olympics with the New Zealand sevens team in August and won his first All Blacks cap against Italy three months later.

In 2017, Rieko was named World Breakthrough Player of the Year and probably should have been, after making the short-list, awarded World Player of the Year as well.

Akira had joined his younger brother on that tour, being called up to play against the French XV in Lyon in a non-cap game and it felt like the brothers were on track to establish themselves as All Blacks greats.

But the story took a dramatic twist into negative territory after that. Akira went backwards at a rate of knots in 2018 – failing to hold a regular place at the Blues.

He’s a tired athlete. Did we see the best of him? I don’t think we did in Super Rugby and other people played particularly well and put themselves in front of him.

Steve Hansen on Akira Ioane’s omission from the 2019 All Blacks wider training group

By June 2019, he learned that he had not made even the All Blacks’ extended pre-World Cup squad. “It’s the same problem he’s always had,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said when asked why the older Ioane had missed selection. 

“He came into the season probably not as fit as he could have been and played every game for the Blues at the same time as trying to get fit.

“He’s a tired athlete. Did we see the best of him? I don’t think we did in Super Rugby and other people played particularly well and put themselves in front of him.

“We know what’s under the surface but we just need him to take ownership of that and turn up and say ‘I’m in’. Once he does that I’m sure he’ll get selected one day.”

Akira Ioane missed out on the 2019 Rugby World Cup training squad, with Steve Hansen suggesting the loose forward was “tired”. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung / Getty Images)

At the same time as Akira was missing out, Rieko slipped in the pecking order. From being a non-negotiable in the No 11 jersey through 2017 and 2018, the younger Ioane lost his confidence and sharpness and with it, his place in the starting team to George Bridge.

Everyone had predicted that the 2019 World Cup would be one at which Rieko would shine, yet he barely played. 

By the end of 2019, the Ioane boys were not on track to fulfil the long-held expectations that they would be the bedrock of both the Blues and the All Blacks.

Akira was in such a poor mental state that he even thought about giving up playing entirely. He had fallen out of love with the game. “I wasn’t in the right headspace … felt like giving up rugby so that was a pretty dark point in my life so far,” he revealed last year.

Not being central figures at the 2019 World Cup ultimately proved cathartic, because the 2020 re-set was the making of them. 

A frank conversation with father, Eddie, had a significantly positive impact on Akira. As he puts it: “Dad gave me a kick up the bum,” and with that, Akira returned to the Blues with a clear head and determination to get himself fitter and keep going.

Rieko, too, made a big decision after the World Cup. He decided he wanted to be playing in his preferred position of centre rather than wing and the 2020 season began with both Ioane boys well outside their respective comfort zones.

Not being central figures at the 2019 World Cup ultimately proved cathartic, because the 2020 re-set was the making of them. 

Rieko came back to the Blues fitter and leaner. He was down to 101kg from 107kg and that blinding acceleration returned. But the shift to centre also saw him develop a handful of other skills no one knew he had. 

Rieko Ioane was New Zealand’s form midfielder throughout the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

His long passing has become a thing of beauty and he demonstrated how far and accurately he can fling the ball at Eden Park in the second Bledisloe test this year.

A turnover created half a chance for the All Blacks which became more than that when Rieko was brave enough to fire the ball 25 metres across the face of the rushing defence to brother Akira.

What followed after that was another moment many thought would never come. The older Ioane skinned the defence, threw a dummy to buy himself another 30 metres of clear running and then popped the ball perfectly to Damian McKenzie who fed the rampaging Brodie Retallick to go in under the posts.

The speed, power and awareness that Ioane showed in that wide channel was the reason the All Blacks coaching team have persevered with him. 

He can do what no other loose forward in the country can do and all the torment he has known since 2015 and all the patience the selectors have shown were justified in that one play.

The devastating canter into open space was the icing on a bruising cake and the biggest shift Ioane senior has made in the last 18 months is in the way he plays the game at a reduced body height.

It was the moment the Ioane boys said they had arrived as must pick All Blacks and were now, after a false start in the case of Rieko and a late start for Akira, ready to establish themselves as world-class players.

What mattered more with Akira was the way in which he had hurt the Wallabies with his crunching physicality in the close encounters. The devastating canter into open space was the icing on a bruising cake and the biggest shift Ioane senior has made in the last 18 months is in the way he plays the game at a reduced body height.

For much of his earlier career, he did everything standing tall. He carried too high, tackled too high, hit rucks too high and was all arms.

Those bad habits are all gone and instead, Ioane tackles with square shoulders and hits people with a dynamic leg drive. He can do that because his body height is so much lower and while his most noticeable run came into the build-up to Retallick’s try, his more impressive carries came close to the ruck.

Akira Ioane has left destruction in his wake for the All Blacks this year, whether out in the open or doing the dirty work close to the breakdown. (Photo by Brett Phibbs/Photosport)

Ioane was a handful in his pick and drive work and were it not for a fumble, he may have scored a wonder try of his own when he picked the ball off the deck after Aaron Smith had made a break and charged forward without breaking stride. 

It was a dynamic movement where his back was parallel to the ground from the moment he came in to pick the ball up and continued to blast into the Wallabies.

Ioane has not necessarily proven himself to be everything the All Blacks need at blindside, but he’s doing enough to suggest he could be. He’s doing enough to make everyone believe that he’s now on track to become a special player and that he and Rieko are going to join the pantheon of All Blacks siblings.

In recent times the Barrett, Whitelock and Franks brothers have made rich contributions to the All Blacks and no one would bet against the Ioane boys doing much the same.

“The journey has been awesome,” says Rieko. “Our only goal was to make this team and this jersey means so much to us now, more than ever I guess. You grow up as a young player and you want to be an All Black, you want to be an All Black and you want to be an All Black and then when you make it, as you play a few games you want to stay there and then you want to become a great All Black, the best All Black. 

“That is the mindset I find myself in at the moment. I can’t speak for my brother, but I am sure he would probably say something similar. Once you have a taste for this environment, it is something you don’t want to lose so you train your hardest, you prepare your best, so after the 80 minutes on Saturday you can say you survived another week. It is about fulfilling our potential and a chance to make our family proud.”

More stories

Join RugbyPass+ now to continue reading this article.

Access our new premium content area bringing you the highest quality rugby content from award-winning journalists, opinionated pundits, leading coaches and the biggest stars in the game.

loading
Search