Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Ioane a force for resurgent Blues side

Akira Ioane has stepped up in the past month in the absence of injured Blues skipper Jerome Kaino. Photo / Photosport
Akira Ioane has stepped up in the past month in the absence of injured Blues skipper Jerome Kaino. Photo / Photosport

The challenge thrown at Akira Ioane to up his work rate, increase his physicality and make his presence felt in Super Rugby has been accepted.

The 21-year-old loose forward has transformed himself in the past month from bit part Blues player to doing enough to at least pique the interest of the All Blacks selectors.

It's unlikely, given the depth of talent at loose forward even considering the current injury list, that Ioane has leapfrogged his way to a place in the All Blacks squad to play the British and Irish Lions.

But he will at least have provided the All Blacks coaches with some optimism that he's absorbed the key messages he has been delivered in relation to his preparation, desire and output.

Since he was elevated to the starting team a few weeks ago, following Jerome Kaino's knee surgery, Ioane has been a more dynamic and energetic force for the Blues.

He's found the aerobic capacity to play that bit wider and involve himself in the wider areas of the field where his pace and power have been devastating.

Against the Waratahs last week, he showed why he remains such an exciting talent when he popped up in the open, accelerated on to a pass and blasted his way past the first two tacklers on the outside before straightening and scoring by the posts.

It was a five second blast that few other loose forwards in world rugby could have emulated and gave a glimpse of his pace, agility and awareness.

These are the qualities that set him apart - the reasons why he was part of New Zealand's Olympic sevens team last year and the reason why he's been on the All Blacks watch list for the past two seasons.

"I think he's doing very well for his age," said Blues coach Tana Umaga. "He still has a bit of improvement to come, but we're happy with where he's at.

"He has stepped up to the job at hand and I still think he has so much to improve on. So when he does, imagine how good he's going to be when he really gets the hang of the role he's being asked to do."

The bit Umaga and the All Blacks would like to see more of is his desire to be constructively confrontational. At 1.95m and 115kg, he's a huge man and explosive with it. Should he develop the mentality to impose himself, he could become one of the more intimidating forces in the game.

Combine that with his obvious athleticism and ability to run with the freedom and attributes of an outside back, and it is easy to see why he's a work in progress that will be closely scrutinised.

Regular game time has been the key to getting more out of him and the next four to six weeks could see Ioane take giant strides towards winning an international call-up.

He will likely remain in the Blues' starting team for the foreseeable future, with Kaino not expected back for a couple of weeks.

That should give Ioane the chance to play on the harder, faster grounds of South Africa, where the Blues will be heading after tonight's clash with the Cheetahs, and then against the Lions twice - once for the Blues and then again for New Zealand Maori.

"He's been great," reckons fellow Blues loosie Steven Luatua. "His understanding of our game has come a long way, he adds another dimension to our play and is a great ball carrier."

- NZ Herald

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