The factors behind Akira Ioane’s arrival as an All Blacks enforcer

No one factor reveals the magic ingredient behind Akira Ioane’s rise to sit among the most captivating loose forwards on the planet.

Improved fitness, a greater appreciation for the privileged position he holds and being happier within himself all contributed to breakthrough performances against the Wallabies that strongly suggest he is the All Blacks’ long-term answer at No 6.

Ioane always possessed the physical attributes to be a devastating prospect, so much so that success came easy as he progressed through the grades.

Highly-regarded former All Blacks scrum coach Mike Cron has long believed props do not fully develop until their late 20s. A similar case could be made for most forwards.

Ioane first burst onto the national consciousness with the New Zealand sevens team in Wellington in 2015. Before last season, though, he had only made one non-Test appearance for the All Blacks in 2017 against a French XV in Lyon.

Six years into his professional career he’s now matured to the point he fully grasps everything that’s required to extract the best from his natural abilities.

With 88 metres, nine defenders beaten, two try assists, three clean breaks and 10 tackles, Ioane was the everywhere man for the All Blacks in their 38-21 victory over the Wallabies in Perth. That those numbers came on the back of a standout display at Eden Park three weeks earlier offered compelling evidence he has arrived on the Test scene.

Two years ago, though, it was a different story. By the end of the 2019 season Ioane had fallen out of love with the game and into a dark place as the expectations and demands weighed heavily on him to the point he considered walking away from rugby.

Blues forwards coach Tom Coventry recalls that season with regret, believing the coaching staff contributed to running Ioane into the ground by playing him in every match at No 8 – often for the full 80 minutes too.

“We probably made a mistake around how much we played him that year because we never rested him at all,” Coventry said. “Hoskins Sotutu might have got 20 minutes. I don’t think we did him any favours because we burnt him out a bit. He didn’t get a break in a long rugby year and he suffered because of that. He lost a bit of motivation because his body was tired.

“Sometimes guys can play themselves into form but in this particular year Aki probably needed a break.

“We realised he wasn’t functioning at his very best and he knew that. If he had little windows during that year we could’ve reconditioned him a bit more.”

That mental break as much as anything else didn’t arrive, with Ioane moving straight into the NPC campaign with Auckland where he hit the wall and at times didn’t want to get out of bed for training.

“He’s had a lot of support from his family, particularly his dad who helped him through that year when things didn’t go as well as he would’ve liked.”

After working his way through the darkest moments with those close to him Ioane approached the 2020 season with renewed perspective. During the preseason, Blues trainer Phil Healey got Ioane fit to meet standards required by the All Blacks.

For a loose forward, the minimum benchmark is going under five minutes in the Bronco fitness test that involves sprinting 20, 40 and 60 metres five times.

Fitter, faster and stronger, Ioane became a more prominent, dynamic presence all over the park. His revival also coincided with a switch from No 8 to six at the Blues – the position he would finish the 2020 season in for the All Blacks.

Despite his recent, compelling efforts there are still those attempting to typecast Ioane as someone who produces the flashy moments on the edge of the field but not undertake the hard graft demanded from a blindside.

They seemingly overlook his frequent work at the lineout – he was a central figure in the All Blacks 20-metre drive while one man short that resulted in David Havili’s try in Perth – and maintain the belief he will struggle with a change in style from the loose Wallabies to more combative Springboks and Pumas.

Coventry instead believes Ioane is capable of doing it all.

“The modern day loose forward will be asked to play on the edge of the field more than they were 10-15 years ago. He has the ability to do that but I’ve also seen him doing the tough stuff around the fringes as well.

“You’ll expect to see him on the edge because that’s where his strength is when he’s got time and space on the ball. You watch him open up at training and he’s phenomenal for a big guy. Those Ioane boys have plenty of fast twitch muscle fibres. I’ve always been impressed by that.

“He never dies with the ball, and it’s very difficult to put him on the ground.

“He can play that tough arm role if he needs to. Aki is a great defender. One of his strengths is he does get himself in positions to make tackles. He likes the physical part of the game. He lights up when people are coming down his channel. He’s got to be consistent with his tackling and making sure he’s getting the shoulder on.

“He’s bloody competitive too. He hates losing. If there’s an opportunity for Aki to get on top of his opposite [number] he will.

“What he’s done really well is being able to curb his on-field attitude. His discipline has been really good as he’s matured he’s understood that hasn’t always helped him. I haven’t seen as much of him being tied up in the niggle. There will be plenty of that coming, no doubt.”

To watch Ioane play and view the confidence he walks around with is to see an athlete at the peak on his powers.

Adversity often plays a role in shaping people from all walks of life. In Ioane’s case, that is certainly true. Not only has he matured from a rugby sense, he’s emerged through off-field challenges to release his potential and the impact he can have. And in many ways, after eight Tests, he’s just getting started.

“26 is probably an age where a lot of forwards get their heads around what’s expected,” Coventry said. “It takes time. There are the outliers who get it straight away but for most the penny tends to drop around 25, 26.

“He’s been a professional sportsman since he left school so there’s going to be some high and low periods. He’s enjoying a high now where he’s going really well after working hard on his body.

“He’s got a bit of a swagger, a spring in his step, and everyone can see that. He just needs to keep ticking those boxes. He’s matured a lot and there’s good things to come.”