Akira Ioane’s recent performances for the All Blacks in the number 6 jersey suggest that a special talent is finally coming of age in the Test arena, and his growth as a player is timely for an All Blacks side in need of a new age of forwards, writes Oliver Keohane.
While brother Rieko Ioane took to the Test stage instantly in 2017 in his debut series against the British & Irish Lions, it has been a longer journey into a regular All Black jersey for Akira. Both players showed tremendous talent for the Blues in Super Rugby but initially it appeared that perhaps only one had the mental and physical fortitude to deliver for the All Blacks.
Akira Ioane’s initial involvement in the All Blacks set up was characterised by bursts of brilliance coupled with indifference, inconsistency and an apparent laziness.
Former All Black coach Steve Hansen said of Ioane, after much failed investments in his potential, “You can only lead a horse to water, you can’t make it drink. He’s got to decide to get thirsty.”
It seems off the back of a promising 2020, and into a stellar start to 2021, that Ioane is beginning to wet his lips as the All Black’s loose forward answer.
There is of course the argument to be made that the All Blacks’ only Test opposition has been below the par of the top international sides around, but the reality is that you can only play who is in front of you, and Ioane has been exceptional when given the opportunity. Especially in recent performances against Australia.
The All Blacks, in beating Australia 38-21 in spite of a red card to Jordie Barrett which cost them 20 minutes without a player, were fantastic. For any perceived weaknesses in the current All Blacks squad and coaching staff, you cannot make an argument against a six tries to three, 17 point win away from home, where five conversions were also missed.
Akira Ioane was colossal in this All Black effort.
His statistics over 80 minutes read as follows: eights runs, seven defenders beaten, 48 running meters, two clean breaks, 12 tackles and three try assists.
Essentially, Ioane beat a defender every time he made a run, and nearly half of his carries resulted in try assists.
However one needs to look beyond just the numbers, and rather at the manner in which they were made. Ioane provided energy from the base of the ruck with quick pick and goes, but was often also found out wide as a linking option, with his pace allowing him to be comfortable among the outside backs. While he wore the number 6 jersey, his performance was typical of an eighthman, and reminiscent of All Blacks great, and Blues predecessor Jerome Kaino.
Ioane is over six foot and 105 kilograms, and has the physicality to front as a flanker at Test level. But his ability to handle the ball with one hand in contact and make room for the offload, coupled with a turn of pace that is up there with the best centres, gives the All Blacks a dangerous attacking dynamic.
To back this up with another stat, Ioane has assisted seven tries in his five games for the All Blacks this year, failing to assist in only one of the games, against Fiji.
Ioane will write his real test as an international flanker in the coming weeks against Argentina and South Africa. The Springbok forwards are arguably the best in the world, and the Argentinians, as we saw against the Springboks in their second Test, will do everything to stop the game from actually being played.
Ioane’s measure as a Test flanker will not be the exhibition rugby played against a Wallabies side intent on staying away from contact, but rather against a team that will try to bully the close quarters and limit any opportunities out wide.
🪜 STANDINGS | Here's the current Fortinet Rugby Championship situation with four games remaining for each team. pic.twitter.com/xt3YpmzJ7i
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) September 6, 2021
Akira Ioane has the potential to mix it with the biggest and the best, and make the All Black number 6 jersey his in the same way that Kaino and Jerry Collins did before. It bodes well for the All Blacks, and it makes the Test environment an even more exhilarating place.
One can only applaud Ioane’s journey of the last two years, and his recent performances, but with this notable improvement comes an expectation to fulfil the promise of a prodigal talent that has been monitored and encouraged for many years. It’s time for Ioane to mark his arrival.
WATCH: Ioane’s performance in Perth
😤 BEAST MODE! No other words are required to describe Akira Ioane's performance against Australia in Perth.
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) September 6, 2021