Superstar wing Rieko Ioane insists he has not fallen out of favour with the All Blacks selectors – and has hit back at suggestions that his future with the national team is in danger.
Ioane, whose axing from the All Blacks 23 for the Bledisloe Cup decider against Australia last week came as a shock to many New Zealand rugby fans, will return to provincial rugby for the first time in three years when he runs out for Auckland in the Mitre 10 Cup this weekend.
The 26-cap flyer has been one of the leading international players over the past two seasons, but was replaced by George Bridge for the All Blacks' emphatic win over the Wallabies at Eden Park, following a string of underwhelming performances this year.
While the 22-year-old wouldn't divulge what All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen had said to him since, he admitted to being left frustrated with some of the rumours on social media.
"I have spoken with the coaches [about] what they expect of me…but that's behind closed doors and it's what I've got to deal with. I'm just looking forward to getting out there and doing the job for Auckland. I think the last time I played for them was in 2016 so I need to get these legs going again," Ioane said.
"Sometimes social media takes its toll on the team, the boys. Not so much on me but some of the boys get talking, and then you get messages from other boys, asking 'what's going on?'
"But I'm good. I'm happy being me. I'm happy with the way I'm playing and that's just the way rugby goes sometimes. There's no big dramatic feeling."
And he wasn't surprised by the breakout performance of Bridge in just his fourth test, Ioane said.
"It's always been that way, even if the perception [among the media] was different," he said when asked about the depth at outside back.
"I've certainly always felt that the competition on wing has been strong with all the outside backs we have in New Zealand. You have Waisake [Naholo] who wasn't even here and Bridgey and Sevu [Reece] who have been performing outstandingly.
"It makes the competition a lot stronger which is good for us and the All Blacks."
Ioane has welcomed the opportunity to impress Hansen and Co against the Bay of Plenty, after Auckland's undefeated start to the Mitre 10 Cup.
"I've just got to have the discipline to stay in shape and play where the team needs me to be. I don't need to go out there and be a superhero with a team that's already working. I've come in and try to fit in," he said.
Ioane's name is expected to be one of the 31 read out next week when the All Blacks name their squad for the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
"I'm just looking forward to getting out there and getting some good game time in. Hopefully, all goes to plan – I just need to get round the paddock and get a few touches on the ball.
"We got told that everyone's got their own training regime now. I just want to keep training hard and get a win for Auckland. It's going to be an interesting selection."