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