Olympic sevens wrong stage for phenomenal rugby player’s talents

The more Ardie Savea plays, the more he fascinates. He brings the broadest footballing portfolio to a role that has traditionally had relatively narrow demands.

He is a mix of speed, strength and the most reliable instincts. All rolled together, it works. He is the Beauden Barrett of the forwards: a free spirit who it's kind of pointless trying to accurately define.

The purists probably won't like that he doesn't always play like a traditional No 7, but to feel that way is to miss the essence of what he is.

Savea is a rugby player. The number he wears never seems strictly relevant and as understandable as it is that Gordon Tietjens was keen on Savea being at the Olympics, it's easier yet to see why it would have been a waste of the 22-year-old's extraordinary talents.

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It is becoming an uncomfortable truth that the majority of New Zealand's leading rugby players don't share their employer's sense of grandeur about the Olympics. The New Zealand Rugby Union has been desperately trying to promote the Olympics as the greatest opportunity the game has known, but it's an argument that has failed to convince a player base that is adamant that there is no greater honour in rugby than being an All Black.

"I'll be very surprised if we don't have more interest in 2020 once rugby players have seen rugby at the Olympics," NZRU chief executive Steve Tew said. "I think there's still an understanding gap of what it means to be at that event on that stage and for rugby to be part of it."

The players know that there is a group of sports that genuinely have the Olympics at their epicentre and a host of others that have been tacked on for reasons that no one is quite sure about. For all that the abbreviated game is a valid means to sell rugby to a wider audience, it's not the right stage for Savea.

He belongs with the All Blacks - something Steve Hansen knew in 2013 when he selected Savea as an apprentice on the end-of-season tour. Hansen said the question with Savea was when not if he would be an All Black. And the answer to that question is 2016.

In his first Super Rugby year there were concerns he wasn't strong enough to have enough impact at the tackled ball. He's built himself physically in the last two years: adding a muscularity to a naturally wiry frame and doing so without any hint of compromise to his mobility and agility.

Where Savea was being blown off the ball in 2014, now he hold his ground when his head is down and he's foraging. Now he can break tackles and use an impressive leg drive to push defenders over the gainline.

The specialism of his role he can do and yet they don't define him and it's this that makes him such a fascinating prospect for the All Blacks.

They won't fret too much about how Savea fits into their set-up. Hansen's thinking on this will be fluid and alive with possibilities.

It's easy to see where Savea fits in - the bench, behind Sam Cane. But not necessarily always, or ever, as a straight swap.

The thought will already have entered Hansen's mind that he might unleash both Sam Cane and Savea. The statistics confirm that the game is shifting from traditional patterns.

The set piece is not the focal point the way it once was and the World Cup showed that the tackled ball was where games were more regularly won and lost. The final quarter especially is typically becoming faster and more open and it's a time when ball runners, tacklers, foragers and all-round footballers can find the space they need to be effective.

Cane and Savea - a combination to match David Pocock and Michael Hooper. In fact, a combination with more to it - more elements and more capacity to contribute.

Savea is much like Hooper, with the giant exception of being in form. He knows how to drift into space, get his hands on the ball in unusual places and make something happen.

Since Savea announced his withdrawal from Olympic contention, there has been speculation that he did so after a nod and a wink from the All Blacks selectors.

But Savea has known all year that he's likely to travel to Europe with the All Blacks in November. He's known since Super Rugby began that if he played close to his potential, the only reason he wouldn't be an All Black sooner, was that he had committed to playing sevens.

In the last few weeks he obviously decided he no longer wants to wait and an All Black jersey has trumped a trip to Rio.