Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Ardie Savea needs to show graft, not glamour at No7

In Super Rugby this year, Ardie Savea was the man who had to be talked about. Photo / Getty Images
In Super Rugby this year, Ardie Savea was the man who had to be talked about. Photo / Getty Images

There has been an almost cautionary narrative around Ardie Savea. It shouldn't be confused as a lack of faith or excitement in him, it is just All Blacks coach Steve Hansen can see public expectation has quickly gathered pace when it comes to Savea and perhaps needs to be checked.

Not stamped out or discouraged, but for a few realities to be pressed home before everyone gets too carried away ahead of his first start in the All Blacks No7 jersey in Christchurch on Saturday.

Savea is a stunning athlete who plays rugby with no inhibition and a desire to use his speed and awareness that defies the number he wears on his back.

He's readily labelled a freak on account of his ability to do the extraordinary and turn a game on its head with a random breakout or supremely good turnover.

In Super Rugby this year, he was the man who had to be talked about.

Every week he'd pull off the near-impossible, mesmerise with his magical touches and be such a figure of influence.

But that was Super Rugby and, whether people want to believe it or not, the jump to test football is significant. The pace is frantic, physicality brutal and the mental and physical demands extreme.

It's not wise to assume all those who shine in Super Rugby will make the transition to the test arena.

More pertinently with Savea, the caution isn't so much about his mental or physical capacities per se - there's no doubt he's going to be a world-class player in time - but it is going to take him time because, to fulfil his potential, he needs to demonstrate he can manage the core elements of his job at this level.

Sam Cane doesn't often appear to be as dynamic or influential as Savea but that's illusionary.

Cane has been immense in recent weeks - he has tackled hard and foraged well.

His presence has been telling and consistent and he did plenty to blunt the resistance of the Wallabies and Pumas.

It was old-fashioned openside work from Cane - adherence to the basic tasks of tackling, ball carrying, support running and cleaning out. He did them all superbly and Hansen wants Savea to deliver the same excellence in these key activities.

Savea can do the extraordinary but, against the Springboks, Hansen just wants him to show he can excel in doing the ordinary.

If it sounds a little uninspiring, it's not. Test football isn't about the frills and added extras, it's determined by the basics and simple concepts such as being physically dominant in all aspects.

When the All Blacks dominated physically for 80 minutes against the Wallabies in Sydney, they beat them easily. When they did the same in Wellington for prolonged periods, they won relatively easily.

When they didn't dominate for 50 minutes against the Pumas, they were under pressure and unable to play their preferred high-tempo game.

There is no getting away from the truth - even rugby as magical as the All Blacks are playing is built on the foundation set at the crunchy parts and, starting for the first time in the No7 jersey, Savea will be expected to have that fact clear in his head.

The All Blacks don't need him cantering in the loose. What they need is for him to make dominant tackles, steal turnovers, get on the shoulder of ball carriers and smash big Springboks at the cleanout.

If he can do all that and still produce his magical running and golden touches of flair, then tremendous. But he'll be judged on his graft not his glamour.

The matchday 23 is (with Test caps in brackets):

1. Joe Moody (16)
2. Dane Coles (42)
3. Owen Franks (83)
4. Brodie Retallick (53)
5. Samuel Whitelock (78)
6. Jerome Kaino (72)
7. Ardie Savea (5)
8. Kieran Read - captain (90)
9. Aaron Smith (53)
10. Beauden Barrett (42)
11. Julian Savea (46)
12. Ryan Crotty (20)
13. Malakai Fekitoa (18)
14. Israel Dagg (54)
15. Ben Smith (54)
16. Codie Taylor (6)
17. Wyatt Crockett (51)
18. Charlie Faumuina (39)
19. Luke Romano (25)
20. Matt Todd (3)
21. TJ Perenara (22)
22. Lima Sopoaga (2)
23. Anton Lienert-Brown (2)

All Blacks v Springboks live on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 7pm Saturday

- NZ Herald

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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