Akira Ioane has had his struggles recently – last year his heart wasn't fully in Auckland's Mitre 10 Cup campaign, due probably to his serial All Black disappointments, but he now faces his toughest yet: finding the inspiration and ability to force his way back into the Blues.
This is not a scenario the blockbusting No 8 is familiar with, nor is it one he would have expected even last month.
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The man who averaged 79 minutes per 16 games for the Blues in 2018 and 78 minutes over the same number of games last year has played just 12 minutes this season.
That was off the reserves bench against the Waratahs in Newcastle and only came about due to Tony Lamborn's head cut, which became infected and required the flanker to spend a night in hospital. If not for Lamborn's misfortune, Ioane wouldn't have played a single minute this season.
He wasn't required to get his boots on for the Blues' two Eden Park derbies against the Chiefs and Crusaders and, barring an injury to one or more of his teammates, he won't for the next two rounds either because, almost unbelievably, Ioane did not make the cut for the team's trip to South Africa. The Blues play the Bulls in Pretoria on Sunday morning and Stormers in Cape Town a week later.
If no SOS is sent back to Blues headquarters for the Stormers match, then Ioane's workload after the first five rounds of the competition will have consisted of that short cameo in front of 7,000-or-so spectators at McDonald Jones Stadium. It is some reversal and it can't be easy to come to terms with for a 24-year-old who hasn't given up on his All Black dream.
In 2018, Ioane flirted with the idea of joining the Hurricanes before instead re-committing to the Blues for another two years, a decision he may now be regretting. The then Hurricanes coach John Plumtree openly admitted trying to lure Ioane, one of the most explosive loose forwards in the New Zealand game, to Wellington as a replacement for Brad Shields.
Plumtree is clearly a fan, so his promotion to All Blacks' forwards coach under new boss Ian Foster may have provided a boost for Ioane, a player who has been on the fringe of the national side (without playing a test) and who may have seen more of a future within it following the departure of skipper Kieran Read.
One of the criticisms of Ioane from the selectors was that he was playing "like a tired athlete" – not surprising probably given his workload at the Blues over the last couple of years.
But now the young man who has apparently trained extremely hard over the offseason cannot get an opportunity to show anyone what sort of state he's in, with Blues coach Leon MacDonald preferring the 21-year-old Hoskins Sotutu – undoubtedly a rising star – along with fellow loose forwards Lamborn, Blake Gibson, Dalton Papalii and Tom Robinson.
There is managing a workload and then there is, well the position that Ioane finds himself in now - from hero to nearly zero.
Coach MacDonald will be getting regular reports about the work his players back in Auckland are doing. Can Ioane, who has seen brother Rieko recover earlier than expected from a hand injury and travel to South Africa, put his disappointment behind him and train to the standards expected now and on the team's return?
It may be the toughest test of his career. His thoughts may be drifting to playing overseas - he has one more season on his contract - but allowing his disappointment to continually show won't help the value of a deal abroad and may finally sink his hopes of a test cap.
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