Surprise contender for All Blacks midfield jersey?
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Julian Savea returned to New Zealand earlier this year following a two-season stint in France and was promptly drafted into the Hurricanes Super Rugby Aotearoa squad.
Now, the 30-year-old hopes to earn a fulltime contract with his former side for next year but first, he’ll have to prove himself in the Mitre 10 Cup.
Savea last featured for the Wellington Lions in 2017 when he took over as interim captain as the side fought their way back into the Premiership division.
A lot as changed for Savea in the last three years – including his position of choice.
Speaking to James Marshall on Marshall’s What a Lad podcast, Savea revealed that he now feels more at home in the midfield than in the outside backs, where he first made a name for himself.
It wasn’t until Savea moved to Toulon at the end of 2018 that the wrecking ball first had the opportunity to play in the centres, and that was only due to the team losing players to the national side during the international season.
“For me, [playing in the midfield] wasn’t a part of the plan,” Savea told Marshall.
“I debuted on the wing [for Toulon], we played like the first 10, 15 games then the Six Nations came along … Obviously, all the French boys went off and we lost a few internationals for Fiji and stuff like that. There were a couple of spots [in the centres] and coach was like, ‘Yo, how do you feel about playing in the midfield? Would you play 13 or 12?’
“I was like ‘Probably 12, I’ll just carry all day.’ Since then, I started staying there.”
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While Savea was brought into the Hurricanes only once left-wing Ben Lam had completed his time with the team and departed for the Premiership in England, it appears that Savea was as much a replacement for the injured Ngani Laumape.
Savea wasn’t required to suit up for the Hurricanes, instead featuring for his former club in Wellington, Oriental Rongotai.
Savea ran out in the 12 jersey last weekend and is playing under the watchful eye of former All Blacks legend Ma’a Nonu.
“I was playing 12, so just trying to do a bit of carry and distributing … but everyone was like ‘run the ball!’” Savea said.
When asked by Marshall about his preference moving forward, Savea was adamant that he now sees himself as a centre first and foremost.
“I’m liking the midfield. I would love to play in the midfield [for Mitre 10 Cup]. I’m getting a few pointers from one of the best 12s in the world.”
While it was on the left wing that Savea announced himself first to the New Zealand public and then on the world stage, the damaging ball-runner is accustomed to having change positions and was originally a right wing specialist.
“Under 20, I was a right wing. ITM Cup, I was a right wing,” Savea said. “Got to the Canes, the first year I was still right wing then 2012, CJ [Cory Jane] moved from fullback to right wing and he said ‘get over there!’ I was like ‘Sweet, respect the elders!’
“Went over [to the right] and the rest was history. The difference was, being on the right I had a right-foot step. Being on the left, I had no left-foot step so I just had to run. That’s just how I manoeuvred.
Savea is comfortable admitting that he’d still like to play rugby in New Zealand at the highest level.
“Since being back, training hard and being back in the environment with the Canes, it sort of sparked a fuse,” he told Marshall.
“I just really want to get back into things and I think I’m leaning towards wanting to get back to the best. If I’m at my best then I definitely have a chance of being in that All Blacks jersey again.”
*Also read: All Blacks Kieran Read back to his ‘roots’
That’s a bold call from Savea and New Zealanders will get the opportunity to see whether the 2o15 World Cup winner still has what it takes to cut it at the highest level when he runs out in the Mitre 10 Cup in the coming weeks – though which team he’ll line up for is still a mystery.
Savea and his family are now living on Auckland’s North Shore but Savea’s name was nowhere to be found in Harbour’s recent squad announcement. Auckland and Wellington are both possible destinations for the man with the highest try strike-rate in tier one international rugby.
For Auckland, Savea could combine with the likes of TJ Faiane, Tanielu Tele’a and possibly Rieko Ioane in the midfield while Wellington have young Hurricanes Peter Umaga-Jensen and Billy Proctor on their books.
With squads set to be finalised in the coming days, Savea’s short-term future will be confirmed soon.
How Savea’s long-term future and his return to New Zealand rugby plays out is anyone’s guess.
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