Akira Ioane option to fry French
As the warmth of success continues for New Zealand sides in Super Rugby and anticipation grows about the impending All Black squad, there is one niggle which won’t disappear.
It’s a concern based around the injury absence of captain Kieran Read and the uncertainty about his No 8 replacement.
Leadership will not be an issue with Sam Cane or Sam Whitelock to drive the side next month through the three-test series against France but settling on a specialist in the boot of the scrum delivers the sort of fogginess Auckland got this week.
It’s a crucial decision as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and his panel have nominated this series as the start of their push towards the next World Cup in Japan.
Noises about Read’s recovery from spinal surgery have been encouraging but his anticipated return has stalled several times and the only gauge on his rugby health will be when he gets back on the park.
The selectors could get around the issue by using the vast experience of Jerome Kaino or the versatile Ardie Savea but Kaino is heading offshore and the livewire Savea offers multiple bench cover. Liam Squire is dealing with a repeat broken thumb and, when fit, is the updated version of Kaino on the blindside.
Akira Ioane and Luke Whitelock have to be in the conversation after being on tour late last year and holding their form through extended runs at No 8 in the Super Rugby series while Gareth Evans and Jordan Taufua have broken into the selection conversations with positional switches where they have shown more layers to their work.
They’ve all got appealing attributes which roll into a collective skills bundle of power, game savvy, speed and industry but the All Black selectors have to settle on whose game fits their ideas and can be shaped into a quality international No 8.
Ioane has the most explosive mix of talent and in a difficult season for the Blues has shown more of the industry, fitness and consistency the national selectors want.
In the All Blacks his core role would be more defined and from phase play, he could be used near the sidelines as an attacking threat or ballcarrier in the way Read used to operate.
When Ioane gets the ball in space, his power, footwork and speed courts multiple defenders and his offloads open precious room for his teammates. Unlocking the defences of high-quality test sides is a tough gig but Ioane offers that prospect through the help of the national coaching group. They’ll also need to work on his temperament.
A low flash-point has been apparent this season and if he plays against France they will consistently challenge his reactions and discipline.
The upside for Ioane is significant now the 22-year-old has shown the stamina and production the All Blacks selectors wanted. They asked Ioane to build sustained production which would stand up at test level rather than bringing the flashy but sporadic bursts of dangers.
That message has been absorbed and his reward should be standing in the No 8 test jersey alongside brother Rieko when the national anthems roar at Eden Park for the start of the series against France.