Rieko Ioane has been the All Blacks' man of the moment for all the wrong reasons.
After a strong Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign with the Blues, Ioane earned a spot in midfield – a controversial position in itself for the former storming left winger who burst onto the international scene against the British and Irish Lions in the No 11 jersey – to start in the All Blacks' first team of 2020 against the Wallabies last Sunday.
But of course, what grabbed headlines across the country was his audacious grounding resulting in a disallowed try right before halftime, which would've put the All Blacks up 15-3 (if converted) heading into the sheds.
The result ended up being a disappointing 16-16 draw, a shaky start to the new Ian Foster era.
Was Ioane to blame? Is his continued insistence on the one-handed flashy finish a symptom of a larger trend of arrogance within the side – or at least in Ioane himself?
Hear me out, but what if I told you Ioane's finishing style is pretty cool, actually. Here are five things you need to know about the 23-year-old speedster – and why the All Blacks need more "sloppy" stars like Rieko Ioane.
1) Ioane will come back stronger. After the Bledisloe Cup opener, a bitterly disappointed Foster spoke about the result and Ioane's blunder, which he called "sloppy". But he refused to blame the result on his young No 13. After all, who hasn't made regrettable mistakes in their early 20s?
As Foster said, this is something Ioane will learn from – and besides, he was one of the best players in the backline if you discount the error, from his energetic running and defence, to the ability to cut open defensive lines with his pace and power.
"It would have been useful – he's feeling really frustrated, that's one of those little lessons players have to go through," Foster said. "He had a reasonably strong game apart from that. When you get sloppy in those moments it can come back and bite you.
"He's okay. Part of international rugby is you make an error and you move on. He's a confident young man and he's got to learn from that one thing but he can also focus on a whole lot of good things he did too.
"We had a chance to win the game in the last 10 minutes and weren't good enough. You don't dwell on errors in test matches. There were errors before and after that. No doubt it would have been nice, but it's not the reason we drew the game."
No one likes a person that's too perfect. Teachers' pets suck. Expect the proud and determined Ioane, who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs in his young career, to make amends for his mistake this Sunday.
2) Are we sure it wasn't a try? Time for a lukewarm take: under the laws of the game, there is an argument to be made that Ioane's try should've counted (or at least could've been awarded by a certain, and liberal, interpretation of the laws).
Here are the laws of grounding the ball according to laws.worldrugby.org. The ball can be grounded in the in-goal: a) By holding it and touching the ground with it; or b) By pressing down on it with a hand or hands, arm or arms, or the front of the player's body from waist to neck.
Here's another interpretation of what constitutes a fair grounding from a rugby ref in a discussion about another "finger" finish on 'The Rugby Referees' Forum': "For the ball to be deemed grounded, pressure must be applied by the player's fingers, hand, wrist, forearm or torso so as to create a reasonable influence on the plane of the ball including the spin, rotation, momentum or bounce."
Ioane didn't touch it down with a hand. But he definitely did with at least one finger. Here's proof:
And you could argue that the force of his finger made "reasonable influence on the plane of the ball". Was he in control of the ball? Well, it depends on your interpretation of the laws. In the modern age of rugby, don't underestimate the power held within the fingers of rugby players.
Not convinced about the strength of the fingers of professional athletes? Watch this:
a middle finger block for Kawhi pic.twitter.com/O94843jYJN— Rob Pere💤 (@WorldWideWob) September 8, 2020
3) Ioane is animated and flashy by nature, and that's ok. Rugby has a fascination with monotonous, no-nonsense blokes who play the game with "honour" and "decency", whatever that means. When a player plays with passion and intensity, wears their hearts on their sleeves and aren't afraid to dabble in a bit of showboating, or heaven forbid rocks a blond hairdo, they are often criticised for being arrogant and ungrateful.
What these critics don't get is that rugby is a wide and varied sport with players of all shapes and sizes that contain multitudes and unique personalities. For every Sam Cane, there's also a Rieko Ioane. And that's great for a sport which can sometimes verge on dull and stale.
Ioane's overly enthusiastic celebrations, one-handed groundings, and unabashed displays of passion are needed in rugby, a sport that has at times struggled to stay entertaining and culturally relevant. Keep doing you, Rieko.
4) In rugby's social media era, Ioane is also the perfect example of a player showcasing their personality both on and off the field. Rugby has sometimes failed to adapt to the changing attention economy, getting swallowed by more vibrant sports like basketball that are purpose built for TikTok highlight reels and has inherently close ties with memes and hip hop culture.
But some players, like Ioane and his All Blacks teammate Ardie Savea, have taken it upon themselves to not only market their own personalities on social media, but also showcase a side of the sport that isn't often seen in the mainstream – reaching the next generation of rugby fans who haven't been particularly served well by the sport.
Take Ioane's YouTube channel for example, where he posts entertaining vlogs that are surprisingly well-edited. In his vlog, he introduces his viewers to his teammates, his music taste, offers an insight into the everyday life of a professional rugby player, and engages with fans from all over the world. Encouraging digital natives to thrive is important for rugby and players like Ioane are leading the way.
And sometimes, a little bit of showboating and personal expression is needed to stick out from the crowded and over-saturated content mill that is social media.
5) Ioane and his family represent some of the best things about world rugby. Ahead of last year's Rugby World Cup in Japan, the All Blacks played a Bledisloe Cup test in Yokohama in late 2018, where Ioane spoke proudly about his family's links with Japan.
Rieko was born in Auckland but his older brother Akira was born in Tokyo in 1995. Their dad, Eddie Ioane, played for Manu Samoa and Auckland during his career, and then moved to Japan to play for the Ricoh Black Rams for several seasons.
Rieko – whose name, along with Akira's, is of Japanese origin – spoke ahead of the All Blacks' two tests in Japan two years ago about relishing the chance to play where his family spent so much time. "There's a bit of history with my family with Japan," he told Kyodo News.
Stories like the Ioane family show the importance of New Zealand's role in international rugby, and how branching out beyond your own country and culture brings many benefits. (Saying that, please don't branch out by travelling during a pandemic.)
Another fun fact about Rieko is the meaning of his name, which translates from Japanese to "a child blessed with logic".
Now you might say scoring a try by slamming it down with one hand is not very logical, but that's besides the point. Plus, as far as I can recall, this was the first time Ioane was penalised for the finish. That's one out of 24 tries in his All Blacks career – and a heck of a lot more tries at Super Rugby and provincial level. Would there have been the same outrage over an error that was made using a more traditional grounding style? He's proved time and time again that he's comfortable with the one-handed finish.
Ioane will continue to thrill and entertain, both on and off the pitch. Here's hoping that he doesn't ditch the passionate and pugnacious personality that brought him to the top.