Julian Savea

The wing is chas­ing records against the Lions, says RW’s Owain Jones

Rugby World - - CONTENTS -

UN­LIKE 2005, when a bedrag­gled Lions were hu­mil­i­ated in a 3-0 Black­wash, with Dan

Carter kick­ing 34 points in the first two Tests, the se­ries in New Zealand is un­likely to be de­cided off the tee. Judg­ing by 2016’s vin­tage, when the All Blacks av­er­aged five tries a game in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship, Steve Hansen’s men have the fire­power to sim­ply score more tries than the op­po­si­tion. Their pri­mary weapon of mass de­struc­tion is Beau­den Bar­rett’s pin­point cross-kick and its most likely ben­e­fi­ciary is Canes col­league Julian Savea.

North­ern hemi­sphere sides have known the Welling­ton-born speed­ster has spelt trou­ble since his de­but hat-trick against Ire­land at 21, and the 16 tries scored in 14 ap­pear­ances against the home na­tions since show why Savea is a marked man.

For some­one who a mat­ter of years ago ex­pressed wide-eyed dis­be­lief that he was rub­bing shoul­ders with icons Carter, Richie McCaw and fel­low Welly boy Ma’a Nonu early in his ca­reer, Savea sits pretty among such rar­efied com­pany. At just 26, he has the best try-per-Test ra­tio of any Tier One player, with 45 tries in 52 ap­pear­ances.

He is of­ten com­pared to Jonah Lomu for his prodi­gious size, some­thing the late All Black never felt com­fort­able with – “Don’t dis­re­spect him by say­ing he’s like me. It’s his jer­sey now, not mine,” Lomu once said of the Hur­ri­cane. Savea, in­stead, gazed up at Joe Roko­coko posters as a kid.

Po­litely speak­ing, he was a big-boned child. His mother Lina spoke of how par­ents on op­pos­ing sides made such a fuss about his man-child ap­pear­ance that she was forced to take his birth cer­tifi­cate to games, while she fret­ted about his asthma. She needn’t have wor­ried. Savea has glee­fully talked of play­ing “three grades up” and would hap­pily tell op­po­nents he was go­ing to “smash ‘em”.

Of Samoan her­itage – his mother had been a handy net­ball player, while his fa­ther Masina played rugby for Ori­en­tal Ron­go­tai as a fly-half – money was scarce when Julian and brother Ardie grew up. They’d take mul­ti­ple buses to train at Ron­go­tai Col­lege, a fam­ily car only ar­riv­ing in their teens.

A lively child, he and Ardie would en­ter­tain them­selves and the ex­tended fam­ily with reg­u­lar dance-offs over long Sun­day lunches, but his fright­en­ing tal­ent and will to win meant it wasn’t long be­fore Julian was spot­ted by Gor­don Ti­et­jens, the leg­endary New Zealand Sevens coach.

Savea cred­its his time in sevens with teach­ing him about diet and con­di­tion­ing. He was a fast learner, scor­ing 18 tries in his de­but sea­son, be­fore be­ing picked for the 2010 Ju­nior World Cham­pi­onship, where he won the World Rugby Young Player of the Year award.

While his as­cent would ap­pear seam­less, Savea’s path to All Black great­ness has not been with­out its bumps. A con­fi­dence player, he has at times lost be­lief in his abil­ity and in 2016, af­ter some medi­ocre per­for­mances for the Hur­ri­canes, re­ceived hefty crit­i­cism. He was sum­mar­ily dropped from the All Blacks for the first time, be­fore a bro­ken leg to Waisake Na­holo gave him a chance to shine in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship. He duly de­liv­ered, top­ping the scor­ing charts and cross­ing for a trade­mark bull­doz­ing try against the Wal­la­bies. ‘The Bus’ was back, pun­dits ex­claimed.

Off the field, Savea has set­tled down, mar­ry­ing his girl­friend Fa­tima, a busi­ness stu­dent. They live with three dogs – a French bull­dog and a pair of white Samoyeds. Savea also has a three-year-old daugh­ter, Cora, from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship.

As we ap­proach the Lions se­ries, Savea’s nose for the try-line has shown no signs of abat­ing and he’s been in pro­lific form for the free-scor­ing Hur­ri­canes in Su­per Rugby. He crossed the white­wash on six oc­ca­sions in nine ap­pear­ances, com­bin­ing with Jordie Bar­rett and Cory Jane in a po­tent back three and show­ing his ver­sa­til­ity by pop­ping up at blind­side and even in the li­ne­out against the Cru­saders.

With just four tries needed to draw level with the All Blacks’ all-time top try-scorer Doug Howlett, the stage is now set for the pow­er­ful Savea to rub­ber-stamp his legacy in a New Zealand shirt.

The Lions have been warned.

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