Over the past two years, Akira Ioane's mental health deteriorated to the point he fell out of love with rugby. But lockdown flipped the script. Liam Napier sat down with the Blues' Super Rugby Aotearoa standout to find out how he stepped out of darkness.
There is so much more to any athlete than the performances witnessed in their arena. Just ask Akira Ioane. After a period of mental health challenges rocked his world, Ioane found peace during lockdown.
He has since morphed from the teenage wonder that lit up the Wellington sevens five years ago, to consistent enforcer within the Blues pack.
Ioane arrives at this interview wearing the team's defensive cap for the standout performance against the Crusaders in Christchurch three weeks ago.
While in his humble way he shrugs off the recognition, it is but one example of the improvements in his game and, more importantly, the shift in his outlook on life.
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It's no coincidence that since regaining a starting loose forward role, Ioane is delivering some of the better rugby of his career.
The past two years, where he fell into a spiral of becoming fixated on the opinions of others, led to the deterioration of his physical and mental health to the point he fell out of love with the game.
When Super Rugby rolled around this season, Ioane was still working through the challenges associated with finding happiness within himself. Then lockdown arrived.
The combination of being surrounded by family and a dedication to training, which involved setting up a home gym and climbing Māngere Mountain every day, changed his outlook.
"I wasn't up to scratch when I first came back this year, so it put me on the back foot, but it was probably good for me to make sure I got my body, my mind, right," Ioane tells the Weekend Herald as he savours another chance to go again against the Highlanders in Dunedin tomorrow.
"After Super last year, I wasn't really enjoying rugby. I was in a dark place. I came back all right but not where I wanted to be.
"I was still trying to gather myself and make sure I was happy with what I was doing on and off the field.
"That lockdown period, it was just me, my family and my partner. Time away from rugby, time away from the outside noise. It was nice. It was peaceful.
"We took it day by day, and as lockdown went on, it got better and better and I started feeling a lot fitter and faster. It felt like good signs, and when I came back, I was in probably the best shape I've been in for a while.
"Coming back into Super Rugby Aotearoa, it's physically demanding, so I've tried to put myself in the best position I can. There are still a lot of things I need to work on in my game but I'm happy with how I came back."
Online criticism severely affected him, and although he only recently turned 25, he is intent on imparting those lessons to younger members of the Blues squad.
"I got caught up in reading comments about my game and how I wasn't good enough and stuff like that and it got to me. This year, I haven't been reading into it. I see a Blues post and I'll like it and move on.
"There's always going to be the haters, the doubters, out there.
"That comes with being a professional sportsperson, whether it's rugby, netball, cricket. And there's always going to be those who support you 100 per cent.
"People only see what's out on the field. They don't see what goes on behind the scenes. I let them talk. I don't really worry about what they say now because they're at home and we're out here grinding every day.
"Other than that, I'm trying to make sure some of the boys in here don't do what I did; don't get caught up in those comments."
The form of Hoskins Sotutu at No8 forced Ioane to be patient but he is this week set to start his sixth successive game for the Blues since his lockdown transformation — the last three coming in his favoured boot man role after Sotutu's knee injury.
Work rate has been a feature of Ioane's resurgence.
"I was just waiting for my opportunity and it has just through injury and bad luck that I am here. But I'm making the most of it and enjoying it. Hoskins has been playing well and you can't fault that.
"He has been unlucky with his injury. As long as I'm playing, I'm happy."
Since Ioane burst on to the national consciousness at the Wellington sevens, expectations have followed that he should deliver similar freakish tries and carries down the edges with near every touch.
In recent weeks, he has instead shown the other side to his game — relentless, controlled aggression. Alongside All Blacks prop Ofa Tuungafasi, lock Patrick Tuipulotu and fellow loose forward Dalton Papalii, Ioane is leading the defensive efforts without losing his cool.
"I don't mind defence. I used to like attacking all the time and not doing the hard stuff.
"It's finding that balance, running where I can and making sure I do my job within the team. If that's being a menace on defence or on attack, I'll do that."
Above anything else, Ioane has found his happy place. With the baggage set to the side, there's plenty more to come, too.
"Going through that last year was probably the best thing that could've happened for me. It was a real eye-opener about worrying about you and what you need to do rather than outside influences. I'm still building. This is not the final product yet but I'm in a good space, I'm on a good path, so hopefully I'll stay on it."