Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Akira Ioane - A genuine phenomenon

The size, speed and skills of Akira Ioane could make him a rugby sensation.
Akira Ioane was outstanding at last weekend's Wellington Sevens but juggling both forms of the game will not be easy. Photo / Getty Images
Akira Ioane was outstanding at last weekend's Wellington Sevens but juggling both forms of the game will not be easy. Photo / Getty Images

Even by New Zealand standards, where rugby treasure sits in troves across the country, Akira Ioane is a player of extraordinary interest.

The 20-year-old is the hottest prospect in any code, the sort of game-changing athlete not seen since Sonny Bill Williams engrossed the NRL in his 2004 debut season.

There seems no limit to what Ioane can do. For the second year in succession, he dominated the Wellington Sevens.

He set the ITM Cup on fire last year, enthralled in his appearances for the Blues and gave Jamie Joseph no choice but to select him in the New Zealand Maori team.

Ioane is a genuine phenomenon, the sort of player who could redefine what is possible at the 2019 World Cup. When the Lions are in New Zealand next year, it could be Ioane who lowers their boom, buckles their ship and leaves them floundering on shores that have forever proven hostile.

The secret to his game is pace. It's what sets him apart. Opponents eye his 1.95m, 111kg frame and brace for a cataclysmic collision but so rarely does it ever come as his agility and foot speed take him past tacklers.

Defenders are still advised to brace when he's in possession, as his journeys down the direct route are memorable -- ending emphatically in his favour.

Ioane's combination of pace, power, elusiveness and rugby intuition have left even his most senior team-mates in awe.

His rare combination of attributes also makes him irresistible to coaches. National sevens coach Gordon Tietjens wants Ioane, Blues coach Tana Umaga wants him, New Zealand Maori want him and, after the Olympics, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will no doubt want him.

It's not often someone so young is in such demand having, despite his impact, played so little senior, professional rugby.

It's even rarer for a 20-year-old to carry such enormous expectations and Ioane's future will be determined by how well he can be collectively managed by the various competing parties who want a piece of him.

It's been a difficult business in the past juggling emerging players' workloads, with history showing that too little football is just as detrimental as too much.

The proverbial sweet spot is about as hard to find as that of an old wooden tennis racket and there are case studies of some note -- Isaia Toeava and Charlie Ngatai -- to illustrate how a career can be set back years if the game-time balance isn't quite right in those early years.

It's not just the physical demands that can derail a youngster; there's the mental toll, too. That's what knocked over Toeava as a 19-year-old. He simply didn't have the life experience to cope with the unique pressures of being an All Black.

Ioane presents particularly tricky problems as he's dipping in and out of sevens with a view to making the Olympics. There's compatibility between rugby and sevens only up to a point.

Tietjens operates a notoriously tough training regime that doesn't necessarily strip mass off explosive athletes but makes it hard for them to keep the body shape they need to be effective at XVs.

Ioane will return to the Blues this week and be available until round 10, when he will go back to sevens.

Umaga is already conscious of the difficulties that lie ahead, of integrating Ioane and his brother Rieko to get what the Blues need from them and then send the pair back to Tietjens' sevens squad.

"We need to make sure we take a gauge of how they are feeling," says Umaga. "They are an integral part of that sevens team and it doesn't look like they are going to get much rest going forward. We have to make sure we look after them.

"We have to make sure they get into our patterns of play and know what we are doing. They will have to do that as soon as they can. Once they do that, they will play.

"We know what they can offer us and how important it will be to us but there is the other side to that. We just can't let them do what they want to do at any stage. We need to make sure they integrate back into what they are doing."

There's more than just conditioning demands to be considered. There's also a significant difference in core roles between the two games.

In Wellington, Ioane spent his time out wide, beating the last defender. He'll be encouraged to use his natural athleticism and ball skills when he plays for the Blues, but he'll be wearing No 6.

He'll be asked to crunch harder yards closer to the ruck, clear bodies from the tackled ball and make his defensive presence felt in the same tight corridors.

Relentless physicality is a pre-requisite for an All Blacks blindside and is something Hansen needs to see from Ioane this year. With Liam Messam and Victor Vito having moved on, the door is open for Ioane and he's most likely being eyed up to take away on the All Blacks' end-of-season tour.

To win selection, he must firstly have something left in the tank. That lethal turn of pace he showed last week still has to be evident in September. He must also show that when he plays XVs, he doesn't bring a sevens mentality.

The All Blacks know Ioane can be special with ball in hand in the wider channels but they need more evidence he can operate at the coalface and grind his way through an arm wrestle.

The question they ultimately need Ioane to answer is whether he can be patient and disciplined in the sense of staying focused on his role for 80 minutes.

He has a tendency to try to win games on his own, to become a little selfish and blinkered. Coming out of the game plan is a no-no for the All Blacks, whose central message is about individuals doing their job and only their job.

- Herald on Sunday

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 28 Oct 2016 11:42:53 Processing Time: 503ms