Is Ardie Savea the future of the All Black eight jersey?
With two tries in the Hurricanes' blockbusting victory at the Forsyth Barr Stadium earlier this weekend and with a repertoire that seems to be ageing like a fine wine, is Ardie Savea the obvious man to succeed All Black captain Kieran Read? Here's why, unquestionably, it's the 'Canes 25 year old openside.
Consecutive World Cups for the All Blacks, the rise, fall and rise again of Quade Cooper, a decade of Warren Gatland at the head of Wales and the entirety of his British and Irish Lions career. A wealth of rugby history has been and past since Kieran Read first established himself as New Zealand’s first-choice number eight a decade ago.
But, at 33-years-old and in possession of a staggering 118 caps in the lead up to the prospect of a third successive Webb Ellis trophy later this year – when Read will finally close the All Blacks chapter of his life – a succession plan is an absolute must; and something that is surely already well underway behind closed doors.
But who to promote? Will Steve Hansen’s successor do all within his power to promote a like for like replacement for Read’s rangy athleticism? Opt for an out and out ball carrier and runner? Or look to convert one of the many powerful flankers currently vying for starting roles across the illustrious backrow?
As far as a like for like replacement is concerned, Highlanders man and younger brother of stalwart All Black lock Sam, Luke Whitelock has been the man to step in for Read in recent times when the New Zealand skipper has succumbed to injury. A safe option for anyone looking to replicate the success of Read in that illustrious AB pack.
However, as far the number eight succession plan is concerned, at 29 Whitelock the younger is no spring chicken himself. And if we’re being honest, lacks the athleticism and explosivity of a first-choice New Zealand eighth man. Strong cover for the routinely world-class Read, but a far cry from a clad iron starter.
Akira Ioane, brother of first-choice NZ wing Reiko, is viewed by a healthy portion of onlookers as the prodigal son as far as the black number eight jersey is concerned. It has, understandably, taken him some time to catch up to little brother Reiko adapting to the minutia of the elite game and has only truly his a run of consistency this Super Rugby season.
With Akira just hitting his straps for the Blues, the ever-increasing reliance on the breakdown and the natural preference for players of Test experience in such key a positions - and the loss of Read’s substantial cap count - Hurricanes man Ardie Savea will surely be a strong contender to step in at the back of the All Blacks scrum indefinitely.
Speaking as an English journo who has spent his entire life cheering for the underdog in every single New Zealand Test over the last twenty plus years – yes, we journalists are born pen and notepad in hand, I can reveal – there was one specific characteristic of Savea’s game that put pains to hopes of an upset. This terrifying aspect of Savea’s repertoire when handed a starting role did not come in the form of his breakdown pestilence, a road stopping tackle technique or the unseen dark arts, but his remarkable ability to keep those powerful thighs pumping in, and often out of, contact.
RESULT: Hurricanes have beaten Highlanders 31 points to 28.— Henry (@rugbymaghenry) 5 April 2019
Ardie Savea (56pts)
Ben Lam (35pts)
Tom Franklin (34pts)
Match centre: https://t.co/obISAn8ho4
#SuperRugby #fantasyrugby #HIGvHUR pic.twitter.com/QR3sbJOiNL
The brother of 54-times-capped winger Julian Savea shares his sibling’s ability to cut it with the best when it comes to powerful evasive runners. You’d be hard pressed to find more than one or two number eights on the international scene as terrifying as Ardie with twenty yards of open space in front of him.
Equally, as alluded to earlier, it is hard to recall a time where the importance of breakdown capability from 1-15 in the international game has been so pronounced. Australia, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, to name a few, have all reaped the rewards of either selecting breakdown proficient number eights - England’s Billy Vunipola and South Africa’s Duane Vermeulen for example – or opting to select an out and out flanker in the right jersey - with Australia’s David Pocock or Scotland’s Ryan Wilson standing as prime examples. Shifting a natural flanker to the back of the scrum is a well-trodden path and Savea’s time at the back of the Hurricanes’ scrum only aids in the Samoan-born backrower’s CV.
Still just 25 and with 35 Test caps and points to his name, and the not-so-insignificant obstacle of the most well-rounded openside in the game, Sam Cane, blocking his path to the seven jersey once fit, the shortcomings in the prospect of establishing Ardie as New Zealand’s starting number eight are marginal.
Admittedly, the continued development of Akira Ioane will at some point challenge Savea’s standing, but while the Blues backrower continues to even out his game and earn his All Blacks debut, Savea is surely the man to help New Zealand continue their imperious hold at the top of the international game following Read’s Test retirement.