By Ben Smith for RugbyPass

The 20-year-old who turned the rugby world upside down in 2017 as an electric winger has always held the ambition to become a centre, where he played as a schoolboy at Auckland Grammar and in 2014 with New Zealand Schools.

The opportunity beckoned to become an All Black through the left wing, so that was the path that was taken.

Now at 22 years-old, Rieko Ioane sits at a crossroads regarding his career in New Zealand and where he will play.

Advertisement

His time at the Blues has seen Ioane drift around the backline, at times out of necessity to help his injury-afflicted team out. They have named him as a midfielder for the 2020 season, and with the departures of Ma'a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams, time in the 13 jersey remains a possibility.

The arrival of Harlequins centre Joe Marchant may harm that, however.

READ MORE:
Rugby: Jamie Joseph out of All Blacks head coaching race after re-signing as head coach of Japan
World's hottest rugby player revealed
Rugby World Cup: South Africa's win 'tainted by steroids', Irish writer Neil Francis claims

Nevertheless, if Ioane is to become a centre first and winger second, and ultimately the All Blacks' first-choice No. 13, the one area of his game he has to improve unequivocally is his defence.

Even as a wide-eyed kid who wowed the world by burning English fullback Elliot Daly down the shortest of corridors in the opening Lions test, Ioane's defence has always had question marks.

When the big-plays with ball-in-hand were coming all throughout 2017, these questions were overlooked, as the attacking upside was so great that it didn't necessarily matter.

When those home run plays failed to materialise over the latter part of 2018 and continued into 2019, Ioane's overall performance came under greater scrutiny and ultimately led to the All Blacks' coaching staff moving on to George Bridge at the position.

These defensive deficiencies cannot be overlooked if Ioane is to become a top level No. 13.

Advertisement

At centre, you cannot afford to have slow reactions and, more importantly, you can never get beat by doing nothing.

The great defenders can recover from disadvantaged positions and complete tackles even if it means contorting their bodies in unnatural ways.

A problem area for Ioane in the front line has been defending underneath routes where he has lost sight of his man running 'unders' lines by ball-watching for too long.

France exposed Ioane multiple times in the June series at home in 2018, targeting this very weakness.

As a centre, Ioane will be tested inside and outside all the time, and getting beaten without making a tackle attempt is a cardinal sin.

Rieko Ioane looks set to make a claim to play in the Blues midfield in 2020. Photo / Photosport
Rieko Ioane looks set to make a claim to play in the Blues midfield in 2020. Photo / Photosport

He must be able to recover when he loses alignment to at least make attempts instead of failing to react at all.

At times, Rieko Ioane switches off and fails to react quickly, or react at all, often caught hesitating for a split second.

The midfield channels require constant communication and teamwork to defend. It's hard to know if Ioane is a big communicator, but this is definitely going to be required and is a leadership skill to be developed if it is not natural for him.

Ioane as an athlete with size and speed should never be beaten on the outside break. This is one area where if placed at 13, any side should be confident that he can deal with overlaps and play jockey defence well.

He has shown an ability to take interceptions that are an almost guaranteed seven points with his speed going the other way.

This is another valuable part of his defensive game that can be built around. Henry Slade of England is fast-becoming one of the most dangerous centres in the game with his knack for picking off passes and opening up fast-break opportunities.

His youth is an asset right now with more experience under his belt than 99 percent of players his age, which should put Ioane way ahead of the curve.

He could lose that advantage though without growing as a player.

Mistakes made in the past are only failures if the learnings aren't taken from them to get better.

If he is prepared to continue to develop, he can reach the potential that he holds. With a new All Blacks' head coach, a fresh environment could see the best of Ioane.

Whether he transitions to the midfield and becomes a world-class centre by 2023 is another question altogether and will require a professional approach of continual improvement.

His longevity in New Zealand will depend on it with most wingers moving on before 27.

Everyone is aware of what Rieko Ioane can do in attack when firing, but he needs to fully develop his game to not only become a centre, but to push his way back into the All Blacks' starting line-up. And then he can show the world what he can do the next time around.

This story originally appeared on RugbyPass and was re-published with permission.