NO ONE COULD POSSIBLY DISAGREE that Rieko Ioane is a special player with the potential to be an All Blacks great.
His story so far is incredible. He has already played at the Olympics, scored on his test debut when he was only 19 and been crowned World Rugby’s best emerging player.
Maybe more importantly, he’s a must pick for the All Blacks and a critical part of their World Cup plan.
He showed that last year when he was the man who kept making things happen. Look back to the first test against the Lions and he scored two tries that proved why he’s so valuable.
The second in particular looked a little fortunate but it wasn’t at all – it was all down to his pace. He gathered a loose ball and within three metres he’d escaped the clutches of Elliot Daly and found the space to break free and score.
No one else in the All Blacks could have done that, and then there was the try he scored in Sydney where he stood up Israel Folau and the two tries he scored in Cardiff which were, again, all about his pace, power and timing.
As All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said after that last game of the year against Wales, Ioane could be anything he wants to be in this game as long as he keeps his feet on the ground.
Oh, and as long as he signs a contract to stay in New Zealand. Retaining Ioane is now the single most important piece of business facing New Zealand Rugby.
They simply have to make sure the 21-year-old signs a long-term deal to be here through to the 2023 World Cup.
And the importance of Ioane extends beyond his ability and the contribution he’s likely to make on the field. There is an element now of symbolism – or at least perception surrounding Ioane.
The battle to retain talent in New Zealand has been never-ending since the game turned professional. For the most part, and certainly in the last 10 years, NZR has been winning.
They have kept the players they wanted to with the odd exception. The big names, though, have all committed their best years to the All Blacks. Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter, Kieran Read, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Ben Smith – they have all turned down big offers to stay here well into their 30s.
But in the last few years the picture has altered a little. The big names are still committing to stay here: Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Dane Coles, Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith, for example.
However, NZR has not been so successful at keeping those on the fringes of the All Blacks. Charlie Faumuina, Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga have all made decisions to move on in the last 12 months.
The former two, between 2012 and 2016, were regular picks in the match day 23. They were an important part of the set-up and both would have continued to be through to the next World Cup.
But the idea of being on the bench between now and 2019 didn’t hold enough appeal for either. They felt they would be better served heading to France where they would not only earn significantly more money, but also be presented with fresh playing challenges.
Sopoaga took over Cruden’s role as back-up No 10 in August 2016 and the thrill of that only lasted for 12 months as he too has decided it’s not enough and has signed with Wasps.
This is all a bit of a worry for NZR as these players are important. Depth is everything in test football and the All Blacks can’t afford to have such a prominent tier vulnerable to offshore offers.
These defections also have another consequence, which is that they influence how other players are thinking.
Players aren’t stupid. If their peers begin to leave in significant numbers, it will tip the balance and become the more common path.
And if anyone doubts that, look at the situation in South Africa which we cover in this issue.
The situation there is dire. They have vast numbers of their best players in Europe and Japan and the volume of traffic is increasing.
They have lost the recruitment war and are now having to manage things as best they can.
New Zealand can’t afford to find itself in the same position and Ioane, with the world at his feet, will be making a huge statement if he signs on for more with the All Blacks.
He will be reminding a young generation that there is more to life than money and that New Zealand remains the best place for anyone with a holistic view of their career.
More than that, he will be sending a message to the rich club owners of Europe that not all Kiwis are for sale and that it is still a rare win indeed for any offshore suitor to lure an All Black.
Of course, for Ioane to stay, he’ll need to be well paid and most likely NZR are going to have to come up with about $6 million to get their man.