Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa are locked in an absorbing three-way battle for the All Blacks’ two midfield spots vacated by departing legends Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith at the end of last year.
Lienert-Brown has been the All Blacks’ breakout star of 2016, pushing brilliant Highlander Fekitoa into the background, while Crotty has been commanding a place with his composed and consistent performances.
But if the trio have paid any attention to the Mitre 10 Cup competition, they’ll be looking over their shoulders at Auckland phenom Rieko Ioane.
The 19-year-old, who played a handful of games for the Blues in this season’s Super Rugby campaign, has undeniably been the standout of the domestic comp over the past couple of months – and is a big chance for New Zealand’s end-of-year tour to the US and Europe.
Soon after returning from the New Zealand Sevens team’s Rio Olympics campaign, Ioane was called into the All Blacks’ wider squad ahead of their first Rugby Championship clash with Australia.
The younger brother of fellow Sevens specialist, the freakishly-talented loose forward Akira Ioane, Rieko couples an imposing 102kg frame with power, searing pace and breath-taking instincts.
— Rugby Renegade (@RugbyRenegade) October 18, 2016
The 2015 Maori All Black’s stats in nine Mitre 10 Cup appearances are unbelievable:
- Rieko Ioane is the competition’s top try-scorer with 10 – three clear of his nearest rivals, who include ex-Warriors NRL three-quarter Ngani Laumape.
- He has racked up a competition-high 812 metres, 117 more than North Harbour’s Tevita Li in second place.
- He has made an astonishing 22 line-breaks, again the most in the competition.
- He leads the comp in defenders beaten with 62 – three more than brother Akira. Li is in third place with 40.
But the numbers don’t entirely do justice to his brilliance – take a look at this extraordinary highlights reel.
Equally at home on the wing, there could be a temptation for Steve Hansen to blood Ioane out wider with a Test against Italy on the November schedule – but there’s no question his skill and impact are best utilised in the No.13.
Ioane’s rapid progress is a mouth-watering prospect for Blues fans, even if he does have to bide his time on the wing in a squad rich with midfield talent. He will combine with All Blacks reps Sonny Bill Williams, George Moala and Rene Ranger in a backline driven by new halves pairing Augustine Pulu and Ihaia West in 2017.
Wherever he fits in initially without the distraction of Sevens Rugby for the first time in his senior career, it seems almost inevitable Rieko and Akira Ioane will dominate world rugby for the next decade.