Eyes on the prize: Savea is the special one for All Blacks
OITA, Japan (AP) — The All Blacks lost ground and Ardie Savea turned around, sprinted back to the ruck, shrugged off a South African trying to clean him out, and snaffled the ball for a turnover.
On the All Blacks’ bench, fellow forwards Dane Coles and Sam Cane turned to each other, grinned, and knew what each was thinking: “Wow.”
It was just a moment in the second half as New Zealand was beating South Africa on the first weekend of the Rugby World Cup but it encapsulated what Savea brings to the All Blacks: Speed, endurance, strength, toughness, and, adds coach Steven Hansen, the “x-factor.”
“He’s just got better and better as he’s got older and stronger. We’ve always known he’s an exceptional athlete, but at the moment he’s at the peak of his powers,” Hansen said of Savea. “He’s really confident, it doesn’t matter where he plays.”
The versatile backrower was arguably the best player in Yokohama that night. Certainly, his first half was outstanding while the All Blacks were struggling to make headway against the Springboks. Savea was bulldozing, twisting, and heaving through double and triple tackles with four immense carries that gave his team precious yardage past the gainline.
He also featured in both All Blacks’ tries, ranging inside winger Sevu Reece — “He was running way faster than me,” Reece says — and Aaron Smith to take the ball 30 meters into the Boks 22 before the first try, and drew three defenders to him on the right touchline in the leadup to the second.
His performance makes it all the more remarkable considering he’s been playing with poor vision in one eye and will wear goggles against Canada on Wednesday in Oita. The All Blacks have noticed for a while that he’s been blinking a lot in trainings and games, and Savea has finally decided to look after his worsening eye.
“It’s the right move for Ardie and it’s great that it helps protect an area that other people have an issue with, and it’s a great message (that he can play),” assistant coach Ian Foster says. “It’s not a concern for us, from a point of view that we’re not surprised. He’s been dealing with it for a few years. We’ve got a great medical staff so we trust all the research they’ve done.”
Savea will be on the reserves bench on Wednesday for the first time in a year. He’s been a reserve for the majority of his 40 tests. He came off the bench in his first five tests, for 10 of his 12 in 2016, and eight of his 10 in 2017. In the flankers’ pecking order, he was below Jerome Kaino, Cane, Matt Todd, Liam Squire, and Shannon Frizell.
But the retirement of Kaino and injuries to the others gave Savea an opening and, since his match-winning try off a maul against the Springboks a year ago in Pretoria, he’s become first choice.
Being a starter rather than a replacement, when he often tried too hard to do too much in too little time, has made a difference.
“At one point, he was the impact player off the bench,” Hansen says. “But his stamina and his strength as he’s matured now allows him to do the special things he does for 80 minutes. That puts pressure on everyone else to come to his standards.”
They’re standards that have garnered Savea comparisons with the great Michael Jones, who was considered a freak when he emerged in the mid-80s; a flanker who wouldn’t be out of place in the centers. Savea’s ability to excel in jersey No. 6, 7 or 8 — and who knows, maybe 12, 13, or Reece’s 14 — prompted Australia coach Michael Cheika to call him a “hybrid.”
There’s leadership potential, too. Savea captained his school 1st XV, New Zealand Schools, and Wellington province. He also launched a self-named clothing line with wife Saskia in 2017. She manages the brand and he designs and models the T-shirts, hoodies, shorts and pants with phrases on them about being “Younique.”
The All Blacks encouraged his growth by taking him on a tour of Europe in 2013 as a non-playing apprentice. Savea got to tour with his older brother Julian, then play as an All Black with “The Bus” for 18 months before Julian was axed after five years, 54 tests, and 46 tries.
But there’s nothing “Minibus” about Ardie, who will turn 26 this month and is far from the finished product to the All Blacks.
“He’s a special athlete and he has the ability to influence the game with and without the ball,” Foster says. “Often you see a player who’s great in one of those aspects, but he can influential in both in big moments.
“His attack stuff is good, and it can be a lot better. Sometimes he puts so much effort into his ball carrying that he can switch out of the game for a little bit after that. So we’re going to keep challenging him, which he probably doesn’t like hearing. Everyone’s got a role. The only way he can he do what he does is if people around him do what they do.”
Coles, for one, is glad he’s on the same side as Savea for the All Blacks and Hurricanes.
“From a little boy from Rongotai to, like, probably one of the best players in the world. He’s in a really good place,” Coles says of his teammate. “He’s a special kid. He’s just got a good heart, he’s a good person and when he’s on the field, he’s just doing everything he can to show what it means to be an All Black.”