Julian Savea has announced he's off to Toulon in August and by doing so has confirmed what has been apparent but mostly unspoken for a few years now.

And no, it's not that he's validated those who have said for the last 18 months that he's a fading force. That much has been obvious and openly acknowledged since Savea was dropped by the Hurricanes for the 2016 Super Rugby final.

What Savea's departure has done is highlight just how incredible it was that Doug Howlett managed to score 49 tries for the All Blacks and how difficult it will be for anyone to break his record.

Wind the clock back to September 2014 and the TAB would have paid out on Savea breaking Howlett's record. The man known as 'The Bus' was just about unstoppable that year.


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By the time the All Blacks arrived in Johannesburg to play South Africa, Savea was in such brutish form that coach Steve Hansen declared him a better wing than Jonah Lomu.

It was remarkable praise but no one could say it wasn't justified even if they disagreed.
Savea had scored his 27th All Blacks try the previous week in Argentina and it was a try that was remarkably Lomu-esque in the way he bashed four defenders out of his way.

But Hansen's assessment was based on his belief that Savea had more in his armoury than Lomu.

The former had pace and power, but he also had agility, awareness and a kick and chase option that enabled him to have, through the breadth of his skills, more finishing power than Lomu.

It also by implication suggested Savea had considerable longevity as he wasn't solely reliant on top end speed.

Having only just turned 24, who didn't think Savea was a certainty to push on and beat Howlett's record? Yet here he is bidding New Zealand and the All Blacks farewell three tries short of Howlett.

"I think he's the second-top tryscorer of all time [for the All Blacks], he caught the imagination of the world really," said Hansen this week when Savea announced his impending departure.

"When he was at his best, he was nigh-on unstoppable, so he's done what a lot of people would aspire to do and that's wear the jersey with pride and enhance it."

Savea joins an impressive list of men – Christian Cullen, Joe Rokocoko and Jeff Wilson – to get close to Howlett's record but not beat it.

And looking at how things are currently poised, Howlett's record could stand for some time yet. The only player within realistic distance of breaking it is Ben Smith, who scored his 31st try last weekend.

He's got the rest of this year and next to score 19 more tries which makes it hard to see him doing it.

After Smith the next most likely challenger is Rieko Ioane who has scored 13 tries in 15 tests and having only just turned 21, he'd sit right now as a strong contender to break it in time.

But so many others have started like Ioane. Savea did, Rokocoko did and so too did Sitiveni Sivivatu.

They were almost scoring a try per test but somewhere along the way, the magic dried up and they couldn't keep the strike rate going.

Unlike Howlett, and maybe it is time for his achievement to be better recognised.

There is a sense that he was never viewed as a player in the same league as the likes of Cullen, Savea and Rokocoko.

Who would know how the court of public opinion works but Howlett never evoked the same depth of admiration as some of his peers.

Cullen had everyone mesmorised by his ability to shift direction at top speed and was always accredited with creating his tries. Savea likewise was considered the manufacturer of much of his own try haul, but Howlett widely seen as an exploiter of the space other's

The inference was always that he played at the end of an All Blacks backline that did all the hard work and he was quick enough to take advantage.

Time then for history to be re-written and Howlett to be given a seat in the Pantheon, for such a view hardly does him justice.

His game was mostly built on his top end pace but obviously not solely because he couldn't have delivered for as long as he did if that was the case.

Howlett was actually a total footballer. He slipped in just as easily at fullback and he'd have thrived in this current world of aerial bombardment where back three players have to be as good in the air as they do on the ground.

Many of his tries did come from his ability to exploit space others had made, but isn't that a tremendous skill in itself?

For 11 years Howlett has been the All Blacks highest try scorer and for 11 years everyone has assumed there was someone just about to knock him off the top.

But the waiting goes on and the longer it does, the deeper our appreciation of Howlett should become.

All Blacks top try scorers:
Doug Howlett – 49 (62 tests)
Christian Cullen – 46 (58)
Joe Rokocoko – 46 (68)
Julian Savea – 46 (54)
Jeff Wilson – 44 (60)
Jonah Lomu – 37 (63)