Opinion: Ioane waiting in the wings at Rugby World Cup

10:39 am on 2 October 2019

Opinion - It's hard to believe Rieko Ioane is just 22. Harder still to accept how quickly he's become an also-ran.

Rieko Ioane celebrates scoring a try against South Africa.

Rieko Ioane. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

No-one likes picking on a player.

Criticising teams en masse is hardly safe ground in this business, but players and coaches are better at shrugging their shoulders when the blame's been shared around.

Round on one bloke, though, and they all hate you.

Sadly also-ran is a fair description, given how little All Blacks rugby the wing has played this year.

Wednesday's Rugby World Cup Pool B clash with Canada, will be just Ioane's third appearance of the season.

It's New Zealand's seventh match in a year where the once first-choice player hasn't even been able to make the reserves lately.

If your own coaches don't rate you worthy of the 23, you can't really blame other people for noticing.

Part of the surprise value here is Ioane's age.

We've seen other explosive wings quickly fall from favour, but not until they were a good four or five years older than he is.

Point is that it happens, though.

Guys, particularly wings, who rely on extreme levels of athleticism can find there's little to fall back on if those powers wane or their work ethic diminishes.

When things that happened almost without effort become hard, or in some cases impossible, then confidence goes too.

And once you're battling your head, as well as your body, it's a long road back.

Ioane's resurgence is said to be starting against Canada.

Just as it was meant to when he played in the 16-16 draw against South Africa in Wellington this year, after a sluggish Super Rugby season.

He was poor in that Springboks match; lethargic, prone to errors, generally out of place.

The following clash with Australia, lost 47-26, was no better and now Ioane's seen his spot taken by George Bridge.

For how long? Heck, it could be ages. Maybe forever.

You assume there will be days when Ioane scores tries by the handful again and people proclaim that he's back and are quick to scorn those who ever wrote him off.

George Bridge.

George Bridge has usurped Ioane as the All Blacks first-choice left wing in 2019. Photo: Photosport

That's not hard to predict because of how often we've seen it before.

For every All Blacks outside back who's evolved their game and had various kicking, defensive and playmaking skills to fall back on, there's another who's only trick was being good with ball in hand.

Hey, it's a great trick. Maybe the best.

Everyone dreams of slipping into top gear and rounding defenders for fun, but only the great athletes can do it.

Ioane has been one of those and maybe for longer than we realise.

A New Zealand Sevens rep at 17, he was an All Black two years later. He's been an Olympian, captained New Zealand at Secondary Schools' level and thrilled test audiences everywhere.

But talent's not a tap. It can't just be turned on when the occasion demands. Talent's merely a start and making the most of it relies on a lot of things.

Bridge, for instance, would not be the most talented player or athlete in the All Blacks' environment. Not by a long chalk.

But boy is he doing a lot with what he has.

It's going to take plenty - both against Canada and on the training track - for Ioane to win the No.11 jumper back from Bridge and keep all other challengers at bay too.

Jordie Barrett scores a try.
New Zealand All Blacks v France, 2nd Test at Westpac Stadium, Wellington, New Zealand on 16 June 2018.
Copyright photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Jordie Barrett is also out to prove a point against Canada, according to Hamish Bidwell. Photo: Photosport

The outcomes of New Zealand's remaining pool games, against Canada, Namibia and Italy, are not in doubt, but there remains uncertainty about just who's in their best 23.

Looking at the side picked to play Canada, there's probably four with a realistic chance of improving their circumstances.

Outside back Jordie Barrett's one. Picked to play wing, his value extends to fullback and into midfield.

Ben Smith, a reserve against South Africa and now Canada, is a very fine footballer, but you might argue Jordie Barrett provides more potential impact as a bench player. Here's his chance to prove it.

The midfield pair of Jack Goodhue and Sonny Bill Williams are others looking to stake claims.

Not so long ago it seemed as if it was Goodhue and whoever else, in midfield.

But such has been the rise and rise of Anton Lienert-Brown, that Goodhue's been relegated rather.

Williams remains a favourite of head coach Steve Hansen, but it will still take some good performances to break up the burgeoning partnership between Ryan Crotty and Lienert-Brown.

Loosehead prop Atu Moli's about the only other player who might unseat an incumbent.

Joe Moody struggled against the Springboks and back-up Ofa Tuungafasi has never really taken the many chances afforded to him.

Ioane? Well, you're starting to wonder if a return to former glories might be beyond him.

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