If it wasn't apparent already, it should now be sinking in how important it was for the New Zealand Rugby Union to persuade Ardie Savea to stay for another two years.

From being an athlete with obvious gifts and potential Savea, in the last 12 months, has become a player with enormous influence and a player of huge importance both this year and post World Cup.

Savea has taken all he has and learned to combine it in such a way that he is now an exceptional openside flanker.

He's learned his specialist craft, converted from being a generic, highly-skilled footballer to a focused, honed and brilliant No 7.


From having to wonder this time last year whether he would even make the World Cup squad, he's now a player the All Blacks can't afford to be without in Japan.

He's going to be, whether from a starting role or off the bench, a critical part of the All Blacks' campaign and it's a little concerning to think that six months ago Savea was all but committed to joining French club Pau after the World Cup.

He'd signed the preliminary papers, agreed terms and effectively had one foot on the plane as it were.

Obviously, the money was good but what had driven Savea to the brink of leaving New Zealand was this sense he couldn't quite fulfil his potential here and maybe never would.

It would have been a disaster for New Zealand rugby if Savea was now in the last few months of his contract.

And something of a travesty too as instead of building towards being a great All Black as Savea so obviously now is, he would be about to sink without trace in the endless and somewhat charmless world of French club rugby where forwards aren't revered for their talent, but for their ability to endure.

All Blacks Lima Sopoaga, TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea during the national anthems, in the Rugby Championship test match between the All Blacks and South Africa. Photo /Brett Phibbs.
All Blacks Lima Sopoaga, TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea during the national anthems, in the Rugby Championship test match between the All Blacks and South Africa. Photo /Brett Phibbs.

As he showed again in Dunedin on Friday night, he brings so much to the game that he has become almost Richie McCaw-like in the way opponents have no choice but to build strategies to thwart him.

That was maybe one of McCaw's greatest unintended attributes – that simply by being the player he was, opponents had to spend hours working out how they could negate his influence.


Savea has become that same game-changer, be it through his work in the dark areas or in the way he can pop up on the wing and look like that is natural home.

He has that same ability now to burrow deep into the tackled ball area and magically haul the ball out on his side.

He can't match Australia's turnover magician David Pocock in volume, but he can on impact because Savea is the master at poaching the ball at the most critical times.

Would the All Blacks have pulled off their miracle escape in Pretoria had it not been for Savea? Probably not because the key moments came from his foraging.

And would the Hurricanes have beaten the Highlanders on Friday night had Savea not been on the field?

Definitely not. Everyone will look at the two tries he scored and see that few other forwards in the world game could have scored them.

Savea has such genuine pace that he made it look easier than it was to pluck the intercept and then go the distance to keep the Hurricanes in touch just before half-time.

His second try was again, beyond the reach of most other forwards. He had to keep up with the rampaging Ben Lam – not easy in itself – and then the footwork, agility and awareness he showed to dance past three defenders and make it to the corner was stunning.

All Blacks loose forward Ardie Savea. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
All Blacks loose forward Ardie Savea. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

But as impressive as those two moments were, they didn't sit top of his personal highlights.

Where he made the most difference and what the All Blacks selectors will have been most pleased about, was the crucial turnovers he pinched and the aggression he showed in trying to disrupt the Highlanders' possession.

He attacked their ball with such ferocity that they had to commit an extra man to each breakdown, which had the twin effect of slowing down the speed of their recycle and leaving them short of the numbers they needed in the wider parts of the field.

This is where Savea has transformed in the last year. He was told by the All Blacks coaches he needed to develop greater physical presence at the tackled ball area, and that is what he has done.

From being a little too easy to blow out the way in his early test career, Savea has built a high nuisance factor.

He's strong enough now to stay on his feet when he's over the ball, looking to win it and he's built the most powerful leg drive that enables him to go forward against even the biggest players.

All that was in evidence in Dunedin. His potential is being fulfilled. He has become a world class openside and a good problem for the All Blacks to have in how they fit him and the soon to resume playing Sam Cane into their plans.