'He wants to make that All Blacks No.13 jersey his own'
SPOTLIGHT: The All Blacks selection puzzle hasn’t become any clearer after the opening few weeks of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
That statement is especially true for New Zealand’s top midfielders, where there are six capped internationals and a number of uncapped prospects vying for between four or five spots in the national squad.
Few, however, have stood out as much as Blues star Rieko Ioane, who has lit up the Kiwi competition in both of his side’s first two matches of the new campaign.
The physical and mental aspects of his game have particularly impressed his former Blues teammate James Parsons, who told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that it is “exciting” to see the 23-year-old, whose birthday is on Thursday, kick-off the season in good form.
Parsons, who retired from professional rugby in January, believes Ioane’s desire to sew up the No.13 jersey, his preferred position, for the All Blacks is showing through his performances for the Blues.
“He certainly looks a lot leaner. When they played the Canes in Round One, just that ability, he could shut down time and space defensively, and now we’re seeing it on attack,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“I just think he’s hungry to make a statement and he really wants to make that All Blacks No.13 jersey his own.”
Parsons added Ioane is eager for the Blues to succeed after years of underperforming and that the 34-test international relishes the pressures that come with being such an integral figure in a squad that is in the midst of a renaissance.
“He also really wants to see the Blues have success and he knows he’s a key cog in that and he knows when he’s playing really well and being the difference that the city’s going to have a lot more success and get in behind the club more so.
“He’s taking that on his shoulders and he loves that. He loves that feeling of that excitement and putting a team on his back and he’s certainly delivering at the moment and it certainly excites me as a fan.”
Whether or not the Auckland franchise can continue their rich vein of form, of which they first found themselves in last year, will be tested this Sunday when they square off against the reigning champion Crusaders in Auckland.
The highly-anticipated fixture between the competition’s two title frontrunners will finally take place after it was cancelled due to Auckland’s alert level three lockdown last year.
Ioane is likely to play a crucial role for the Blues in what is set to be a season-defining clash as they chase their first win over their historical rivals since 2014 to establish themselves as favourites to win their first championship since 2003.
Crusaders scrumhalf Bryn Hall is a strong candidate to face off against Ioane at Eden Park this weekend and the former Blues scrumhalf is acutely aware of the threat his former teammate poses.
It’s not only the attacking aspect of Ioane’s game that Hall is wary of either, as his defensive attributes are something the Crusaders are going to have to take into account if they are to topple the Blues in front of their home crowd.
“He’s been great. I think it’s been a flow-on from last year being in that squad. We always know how quick and how majestic he is, how loose he is with ball in hand,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“But, Jippa [Parsons], you’ve brought up a few times, a lot of times actually, about his defensive efforts and being able to put teams under pressure with his line speed because he’s just so quick.
“It’s been a massive improvement in his game, and when you give that kind of player time and space attack-wise, it’s really hard to defend.”
Parsons agreed with Hall’s sentiments about Ioane, but the former All Blacks hooker went even further and said the part he admires the most about the speedster is his selflessness to ensure his side performs the best to its ability.
“The things that I love most, the speed and the big tries are awesome, but it’s his selfless plays that he brings in,” Parsons said.
“Little tip pass for Caleb Clarke’s score when he could probably score himself. The committed lines he’s running to create space for others to score tries. Those are the parts of his game that he just wants to see the Blues do well.”
That playmaking role will not only serve the Blues well over the coming weeks, but it will also be a valued asset for the All Blacks, according to Parsons.
“He’s doing whatever he can do to create opportunities for the Blues to succeed, and that’s what excites me the most. When he goes this next level up, when he’s bringing that attitude to the All Blacks, that’s the exciting thing.
“Everything about his performance and his preparation is about the team doing well, which is exciting.”
By Sam Smith, @RugbyPass