Rieko Ioane mischievously calls this new-look All Blacks midfield “the Misfits” because of the circuitous journey they’ve taken to the place they occupy for Saturday night at Eden Park.
It will be the first time that the All Blacks have started a test match with the midfield partnership of Jordie Barrett and Ioane, and it rather appeals to the No 13 who, it is fair to say, is a lot more embedded in his new role than his mate.
Ioane played almost all of his first four All Blacks seasons as the left wing (30 of his 55 tests have been at No 11), but made the shift to midfield in 2020 and has now rattled off 17 internationals as a starting centre growing in both authority and understanding of the role.
Barrett, like Ioane a 25-year-old with generational talent, has had an even more peripatetic life in test rugby. The incumbent fullback has started at 10, 11, 14 and 15 during his six-year All Blacks career, and on Saturday night will add 12 to that list as Ian Foster’s stop-gap answer to losing his two premier second fives.
“Two misfits lining up in the midfield – it’s been a long time for both of us to arrive here. The training week has gone well, he’s a good talker, so he makes my job a whole lot easier,” said Ioane of their preparation for Saturday’s Rugby Championship decider against the Wallabies.
“We weren’t initially in this team as midfield cover,” explains the Aucklander. “So to be lining up there on Saturday is going to be awesome.”
Just how smoothly, efficiently and effectively the strapping and gifted midfielders operate in tandem could be key to the All Blacks signing off this problematic Rugby Championship in style, and perhaps with another trophy in the cabinet. It might also offer a glimpse of the future.
In terms of the outside-in backline move, Ioane felt the adjustments came pretty quickly.
“The challenge l found was the defensive side of things,” he said. “It took a couple of games to adjust to. Other than that, as a wing you know what you want from your centre, and likewise Jordie tells me what he needs from me when he’s playing 15, so he knows what our outsides want.
“And with the deadly outside backs we do have, getting them time with the ball is crucial for us.”
Barrett is excited and energised by returning to a position he played regularly as a teenager, and dipped into with the Hurricanes earlier this year, and anticipates a physical challenge coming his way from a Wallabies outfit that looked to muscle up in Melbourne.
“They’re tough opponents,” he said. “The lessons we got out of last week’s first half was a lot of our carry and tackle height was too high. Against a big, physical, athletic pack we had to learn pretty quickly to lower our height in our tackle and ball-carry otherwise we’d get beat up high.”
And as much as Saturday presents an opportunity for Barrett to embed himself in a position he sees as his future, it is also a big-time chance for Blues loose forwards Dalton Papalii and Akira Ioane to stake their claim in what might be the most competitive area of these All Blacks.
With Sam Cane, Shannon Frizell and Scott Barrett all out of the mix this weekend, Papalii and the older of the Ioane brothers realise the onus is on them to prove their worth on the big occasion.
“It’s always special getting a start,” noted Ioane. “Those boys are playing well, and you can’t be mad at the coaches for that, We’ve got to take our opportunities this week, and do our job within the team. If those magic moments happen, they happen, but we’re all about the team first and trying to play well.”
Having Ardie Savea back helps too, added Ioane.
“Ards is a special player … probably the best player for our team going round. We’ve just got to do our job so he can be out on the wing stepping everyone, gassing all the wingers. If we do our job those moments will happen.”
Papalii was asked about the extra importance of the test as the All Blacks looked to sign off the championship in style.
“Test match footy is the best of the best,” he said. “You’re going to get teams playing quality footy for 80-plus minutes. We’ve got to hold ourselves accountable. We know how important it is to close this chapter, but it’s more about us growing as a team. We’ve had a pretty bumpy season, so every game is big for us.”
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