Rieko Ioane started on the left wing in the All Blacks' 33-25 win over the Wallabies at Eden Park on Saturday. He talks to Patrick McKendry about the Olympics, why he likes basketballer LeBron James, and the growth spurt that changed everything.
Who was your sporting hero?
Growing up, I watched a lot of American sports – basketball and NFL. I loved watching LeBron James, now at the LA Lakers, because of the way he carried himself and his success, I guess. He's a personality of the game and you tend to pick up on those players with big personalities.
Is there room in New Zealand for an athlete with a big personality like that?
New Zealand is obviously different to the USA and rugby is very different to basketball. There are a couple of personalities out there; you've got Ardie Savea who's a huge personality for the All Blacks and that's great for our game. It gives little kids something to cheer for and hopefully our Ardies or Richie Mo'ungas will be people who our kids look up to. There's definitely space for that in New Zealand.
Richie Mo'unga doesn't give much away in front of the camera but one gets the impression he has a sense of humour.
Honestly, there's a group of them; there's Richie, Sevu Reece, George Bower and Shannon Frizell. Those four – you can't split them. They'll share a room most nights, and leave their roommates by themselves. They're good for the team and culture. They always bring the vibe. If the team is feeling a bit down you only need to go up to Sevu and ask him to tell you a joke.
It's clear the All Blacks have been keeping a close eye on the Olympics in Tokyo. What are your memories of the sevens campaign you were part of five years ago in Rio?
I look back now and, honestly, it's only hit me now over these Olympics about how special it is to be an Olympian. I think at the time I didn't appreciate the opportunity I had. I guess some of the athletes in Tokyo now might be quite similar. It may take time to reflect and think, 'holy shit', you were an Olympian. We didn't get the result we expected (knocked out in the quarter-final by Great Britain) but at the same time I reflect now that I was part of a special group - an Olympian. I got to witness some of the great athletes. I met swimmer Michael Phelps, I went to some Team USA basketball games. It was once-in-a-lifetime stuff. Apart from the outcome, if I had the time again I'd definitely do it again.
That team over there representing New Zealand looks so tight. Even athletes who aren't winning medals are still getting PBs and enjoying the time at the village. Maybe it is the lack of crowds but it seems everyone is a lot tighter and it means so much.
I've just noticed that your big brother Akira has a large tattoo on his lower leg. Is that something you'd consider?
Aki has a cultural tattoo representing our Samoan heritage. He's the eldest child, he's the one who carries the family name and family values. It's only fitting that our grandparents and parents gave him that blessing. I may get one in the future.
Did you two fight as kids like many brothers do?
We lived in a two-bedroom house in Mt Eden until 2016. We were full-grown teenagers, so whatever was happening at school we used to bring home and there weren't too many places you could vent. Aki and I definitely got into the physical stuff, but I think all brothers do. We definitely had our fair share of it and probably more than mum and dad knew about.
Did having a big brother like Akira help your rugby?
The first year of playing in my own age group was in the under-14s. Until then I always had to play up because mum and dad were the coach and manager of the team and we couldn't get two cars to go to south Auckland or central Auckland or wherever - it wouldn't have worked. So, I played in Aki's team. Playing in a team with and against kids two years older than me helped. Growing up with that rivalry, I didn't want to be the younger brother left behind.
I'm assuming you were always a quick runner. Did you do track as a kid?
Nothing serious. I used to run a bit from age 9 until 12 but I was into all sports. I stopped at intermediate school and only did athletics in my last year at school when I hit my growth spurt. People describe it as being 'skinny-fat'. I was just eating a normal high school kid diet – junk food. I wasn't too good in the gym or physically. My T-shirt hid a lot. It all changed halfway through sixth form when I hit a growth spurt.
What's your favourite rugby memory?
Gee, I don't know. I don't want to leave anything out.
That game in 2017 for the Blues against the British and Irish Lions when you scored a try and it all happened pretty quickly after that?
That Lions series was good. My debuts for the sevens and the All Blacks were memorable. This week my parents will witness my brother and I starting together for the first time which is going to be awesome and something that hasn't happened before. I started with Aki in Australia last year for the first time but due to Covid restrictions only dad was there. It's similar to the Olympics – you don't know how lucky you are until you're not there.
You must get a lot of rugby kits during a typical year. What do you do with it all?
A lot of it goes at Christmas time. As soon as the season is done a group of five or six mates and some cousins come around and help themselves. I'm left with about two pairs of shorts and a pair of runners. I give some to my club Ponsonby and old school Auckland Grammar.
How many boots do you go through a year?
Not that many. I train in one pair and play in one pair for a campaign. I'd never play in my training pair. It's just superstition. I'll be playing in a brand new pair on Saturday but I'm training in the boots I wore during the Blues season.
The mental wellbeing of athletes across the world is very topical at the moment. Are you happy that it's being talked about so openly?
I know a lot of athletes who have struggled with their mental wellbeing. You know, Ardie is a huge advocate for mental health and he has his own clothing range which supports that. It's big for me too and some of it has hit close to home. It's become more topical and players are more prepared to speak up and speak out. It needs to happen because, and I can speak for rugby, rugby players can be seen as tough men who have it all – the shoes, the gear, whatever, and life's not bad. But deep down he's going through his own struggles. A light needs to be shone on it.
The education needs to be there for the next tier – the next group of players coming from school. It's a huge shock to the system once you get under the bright lights and I don't think they see that, especially with social media. It's like an iceberg, they don't see what's underneath. Us older players have been around and seen a bit so we tend to cope with it.