Paul Lewis: Akira Ioane - the most gifted loose forward the game has seen

By Paul Lewis

Akira Ioane of the Blues. Photo Anthony Au-Yeung / www.photosport.nz
Akira Ioane of the Blues. Photo Anthony Au-Yeung / www.photosport.nz

One of the things about sportswriting is you are sometimes lucky enough to have a clear view of the future.

I remember a young loose forward playing in a 7s club tournament in Singapore in the '90s. He was astonishing and, even though he cost his team the final, he was an obvious superstar in the making.

He turned out to be Jonah Lomu.

At an Auckland squad training session, I watched a young loose forward I'd never seen before dropping goals from halfway for fun, with both feet.

He turned out to be Zinzan Brooke.

Last weekend, as he played rather well against the Waratahs, I watched Blues' loose forward Akira Ioane state his case for the future. Finally.

"Finally" because Ioane's nascent talent has probably been even more obvious than those other two. But he has had a puzzlingly quiet beginning to his senior career.

I don't think I have ever seen a loose forward anywhere, at any time, with Ioane's total attributes. He's 1.94m, weighs about 113kg, can run like a cheetah with a wasp sting on his haemorrhoids, has a fend like Michael Jones and can bust tackles, well, like Lomu.

Look up the video of his 50m try against the Force in 2015. Okay, it was the Force, so we can't give him the keys to the universe yet - but it was an exercise in speed and raw talent with ball in hand. He scored a similar try on Friday night against the Cheetahs, albeit not over 50m.

Not for him the hesitation of the forward, used to the dark confines of the tight stuff, who is blinded by the light when he stumbles out into the wide open spaces with ball in hand.
Simply put - I do not think I have ever seen such an athletic and multi-skilled loose forward. Not even Jones, nor Brooke, Richie McCaw, Murray Mexted, Wayne Shelford, Ian Kirkpatrick; Graeme Mourie was a totally different flanker in a different evolution of the game; none of those greats possessed Ioane's total gifts.

So why, you may ask, isn't he an All Black already? Younger brother Rieko already is after showing skill and pace as a wing.

Not everything in the Akira Ioane file is positive. Being a loose forward in the modern game is even more complex and exacting than, perhaps, it used to be. It requires skills other than those of the out-and-out athlete.

When he first turned up, Ioane looked as if he thought turnovers were something someone else did. Collisions at the breakdown are vital - but he seemed to prefer waiting in a position where he could be passed the ball and thus do most damage. His defence tends to be the stand-up-straight-and-try-to-scrag-them variety.

His game against the Cheetahs was rather like that. Turnovers and tackles were not exactly common. Watch the video of that game and compare his match to Steve Lutatua's.

The latter is busily painting himself back into the All Black frame. Carries, clean-outs, tackles, pick-and-goes; a high work rate all round and a bruising presence.

Ioane is still mostly on the edges of things. There's a lot of fringing going on, leaning on a few rucks, stationing himself out wide a lot - and, fair enough, if he finds or makes a bit of space he can be lethal.

But there's not a lot of grunt work going on. Against the Cheetahs, in admittedly a loose goose of a game with 82 points scored, he was the definition of loose.

Maybe, too, the mental part of his game wasn't as developed as his physique. He's tasted success all the way, through Auckland Grammar and age group teams, heralded as a star with a capital S.

The odd bit of lippiness on the field when he arrived in Super Rugby, a bit of an attitude, seemed to accentuate that - maybe a little too much attitude ahead of achievement.

Defence coaches reacted too; tacklers are quick to crowd him before he enjoys any room.

So it's good he is now under the coaching care of the pragmatic Tana Umaga. He may be playing the way the Blues want him to but you get the feeling an All Black jersey will remain elusive until he shows he can be digger as well as dancer.

Even with the All Blacks' loose forward injuries, Ioane is probably no closer to the national team. Yet. Luatua is well ahead of him for the Lions series and maybe the most Ioane can hope for is to be taken on the end of year tour, maybe as a development player.

Then we may see those gifts in full flower.

- NZ Herald

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